End the BART cover-up

Ten days have passed since a BART police officer shot and killed a man at the Civic Center station — and the public still knows almost nothing about what happened. BART will only say that an officer (unnamed) shot a man who was “aggressive” and “holding a bottle and a knife.” One witness told the Bay Citizen that the man “looked like a drunk hippie” and wasn’t running or lunging toward the two officers on duty. The coroner has identified the victim as Charles Blair Hill, 45; he had no known address.

And that’s about it. BART is investigating and so is the San Francisco Police Department, but neither agency has released a single police report or any further information. BART is still withholding a security video from the station that shows part of the incident. All that either police department will say at this point is that the investigation is under way — but nobody will offer any time frame for its completion.

For an agency still reeling from the last police shooting and still trying to win some kind of public confidence in its ability to run a law-enforcement operation, this kind of stonewalling is a big mistake.

We understand that the surveillance video might influence potential witnesses and perhaps should be kept under wraps until everyone on the scene has made a statement. But how long can that take? Two weeks? Three? At a certain point, the cops will have found all the witnesses they’re going to find — and the public needs to know that there will be a reasonable time limit after which the video will be made public.

The same goes for police reports on the incident, including the statements of other witnesses — and the names of the officers involved.

BART’s spokesperson, Linton Johnson, told us he can’t release the names of the officers because state law forbids it. He says he will release the video footage as soon as the investigation is complete. When will that be? Nobody’s giving so much as a hint. Johnson says he doesn’t know because the San Francisco Police Department is the lead agency; SFPD public affairs says the only person authorized to talk about the case is Johnson at BART.

SFPD has no business giving BART the final says on this — San Francisco ought to release the information from its incident reports immediately.

We’d be more patient about this if BART didn’t have such a long, disgraceful history of cover-ups, obfuscation, and lies about police shootings. Since 1992, when the agency completely fabricated a story to justify the shooting of an 19-year-old Jerrold Hall (BART said Hall was struggling for control of the cop’s gun; evidence showed he was actually shot in the back, from a considerable distance) it’s been hard to trust anything the transit system says.

A BART cop shot and killed a naked, mentally ill man in 2001 (and tried to cover up the scandal). And of course, the 2009 Oscar Grant shooting was marked by misinformation and cover-ups.

So BART has a particular responsibility to handle this case with the greatest amount of sunshine possible. For starters, the basic police reports — the officers’ own accounts and the reports of the initial response team — ought to be public (even if the names of the officers and witnesses are redacted). And if there’s a legal issue, the BART board ought to take the initiative to ask a judge to authorize the release of at least some relevant information.

If the officer who fired on Charles Blair Hill acted properly, then there’s nothing to hide. If the officer shot too quickly, then the public needs to know that BART is aware of the problem and is going to act on it — before anyone else gets killed.