Gun crazy

Pub date January 5, 2009

Editors note: This story ran Oct. 17, 2001

Bruce Seward imploded while riding an AC Transit bus.

It was 4 a.m. on May 28, 2001, and Seward was rolling through the darkness on the 82 line, headed south from Oakland toward Hayward. Hands clapped over his ears, Seward, a 42-year-old car salesman, rocked back and forth, vacilutf8g between sobbing and shouting. He was barefoot, according to witnesses.

Bus driver Anthony Ramsey heard Seward ranting, “They trying to kill me, they trying to kill me.”

“Shut up!” one passenger screamed. Another rider threatened to toss Seward off the bus.

Seward morphed, gaining some inner – momentary – calm. “Thank you, God, thank you, God, thank you, God,” he chanted.

A few weeks earlier Seward had jetted to Danville, Ill., for his mother’s 67th birthday; his mom and eight siblings didn’t notice any behavioral peculiarities. But now, quite publicly, the Oakland man’s synapses were misfiring.

At the end of the line, the Hayward BART station, Seward got off the bus. An hour later a veteran BART cop named David Betancourt found the rangy African American man outside the station, lying next to a Dumpster, naked and semi<\h>coherent. Betancourt, according to confidential police reports obtained by the Bay Guardian, grabbed Seward and shook him. “Are you OK?” the cop yelled.

“No,” Seward shouted, standing up. “No, it’s not OK.”

Betancourt, police reports indicate, says Seward then charged him. Yanking a can of pepper spray off his belt, the cop blasted the naked man in the face. The chemical spray did nothing.

Then, according to witnesses, Seward grabbed Betancourt’s 26-inch-long wooden nightstick. The officer – as he would later tell his superiors – began to fear for his life. Betancourt said he thought Seward would “beat [him] to death” with his own baton or attempt to disarm him and shoot him.

The cop drew his blued steel Glock and squeezed the trigger, dropping Seward with a single .40-caliber slug through the heart.

Seward’s demons are buried with him. Family members have few clues about why his mind melted down. They know he survived a similar psychotic episode in the early 1990s. And they know he went to see a psychologist two days before he died. It seems his relationship with an Oakland woman was collapsing; maybe the emotional turmoil had shattered him.

Betancourt, who has 20 years of law-enforcement experience, 8 of them with BART, emerged unharmed from the fatal skirmish; police records show the officer suffered no injuries. His career seems undamaged as well: Betancourt returned to active duty last week after probes by the BART police and the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office cleared him of any wrongdoing. The cop had been on paid administrative leave since the incident.

“It’s unfortunate that somebody died, but the officer was justified in using deadly force that morning,” Betancourt’s attorney, Leo Tamisiea, said.

BART police chief Gary Gee concurs. “I think he acted appropriately,” Gee told us. “The tussle that took place, the back-and-forth exchange – when it had no effect on [Seward] and the officer feared that he himself was going to suffer serious injury or death, he took the action he felt necessary.”

Regardless of BART’s official line, a key question remains: did Betancourt really have to kill Seward? It’s a question neither asked nor answered in the 90 pages of BART police reports leaked to this paper.

“My brother would still be alive today if the officer was doing his job correctly,” Michael Seward, 45, an Illinois state prison guard, told us. “I can’t see any justification for shooting an unarmed civilian.”

According to almost every major U.S. police department’s official guidelines – including those of the BART police – a cop can use deadly force only if the cop reasonably believes his or her life (or the life of another person) is in immediate jeopardy.

Did Betancourt truly think Seward was going to bludgeon him to death? And if so, was the cop making a realistic assessment of the situation? These questions, too, are unresolved by the investigations of BART and the D.A.’s Office.

The subway system has offered Seward’s family only fragmentary information about case number 01-22334. “The hardest part is that we’re not getting any help from the police department,” Michael Seward said. “I have not received an autopsy report on my brother. We’re trying to find out what actually happened, and the police have not been forthcoming in terms of giving us an accurate, detailed explanation of what happened.” The family is contemputf8g a lawsuit.

Lurking in the police documents leaked to this paper is one fairly startling fact: “Officer Betancourt’s duty weapon left the scene with him,” one chronology of the incident reads. Two hours after the killing, Betancourt turned the Glock over to investigators. “That’s totally against protocol,” said former Santa Monica cop Frank Saunders, a consultant on police practices. “In these cases, you’re supposed to take the officer’s weapon immediately.”

“I don’t know why there are time gaps in the reports,” BART spokesperson Mike Healy admitted.

For Samantha Liapes, director of Bay Area PoliceWatch, Seward’s death is symptomatic of a broader problem. “We’re very troubled by this: yet another example of unwarranted deadly force being used in a situation where someone was obviously in mental distress,” Liapes said. “The fact that the man was naked and clearly not carrying a life-threatening weapon makes the use of deadly force by the officer even more troubling.”

Two weeks after Seward was killed, San Francisco cops put 20-some bullets in another mentally ill man, Idriss Stelley, in a movie theater at Sony Metreon. Stelley, according to his mother, was brandishing a less-than-lethal, two-inch-long knife.

Beyond the specifics of the two cases, there’s a larger policy issue: are local cops getting the proper training in how to handle mentally ill people?

As required by state law, BART – along with most other Bay Area departments – gives new recruits six hours of schooling on the subject. “We are sensitive to the fact that there may be a need for additional training and are receptive to looking into it,” BART chief Gee said. “But I’m not so sure that even if Betancourt had gotten supplemental training on dealing with persons who are mentally ill, that it would have changed the outcome in this case.”

The chief could take a cue from San Jose, which has put 130 of its officers through a 40-hour training on mental health crisis calls.

Lt. Brenda Herbert, head of the San Jose Police Department’s Crisis Management Unit, runs the training program, which was launched in 1998. “What we’re trying to do is teach officers to talk someone down, rather than take them down physically,” Herbert says. “It’s a matter of teaching these officers what it means to be hearing voices, how to talk to someone who’s hearing voices, how to find out what the voices are saying so that you can take the necessary precautions.”

Seward is not the first person to bleed to death in the parking lot of the Hayward BART station. It was there, in 1992, that BART cop Fred Crabtree confronted Jerrold Hall, a 19-year-old African American. Hall, who was getting off a train with a pal, fit the description of a robbery suspect. Crabtree – armed with a baton, a can of pepper spray, a handgun, a shotgun, and an attack-<\h>trained German shepherd – told Hall to halt.

After a quick discussion Hall turned and walked off, his hands clearly visible. Crabtree ordered him to stop. When Hall failed to heed the command, the cop loosed the 12-gauge shotgun, blasting the young man in the back of the head.

As it turned out, no evidence was ever found connecting Hall to any robbery – and he was unarmed (see “BART Cops, 41-0,” 1/14/98).

BART came under public pressure to fire – or at least discipline – the officer. Politicians made noises about putting the subway system’s largely unaccountable 182-<\h>officer force under the supervision of a civilian review board.

Apparently unswayed by reason, BART officials did absolutely nothing, and eventually the public discontent tapered off. Crabtree remained on active duty until his own inglorious demise a few years later: the officer was found hanging from a noose in his home as porno tapes played on the TV.

Interviewed last week, Tom Radulovich, a member of the BART Board of Directors, said he’s pushing for more police oversight but at this point doesn’t have the votes on the nine-member board to pass any new rules. It may prove especially hard to muster those votes in the fear-<\h>laden post-Sept. 11 climate.

“The concern the [Seward killing] triggers for me is whether we’re doing enough to make sure things like this don’t happen,” Radulovich said.

It could be that David Betancourt really had no choice but to gun down Bruce Seward. Maybe it really was a kill-or-be-killed situation.

There is, however, another, more grim possibility: that the police culture at BART has changed very little in the last nine years. And the majority of the BART board doesn’t seem to care.