Another BART police tragedy

Pub date January 7, 2009
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL The video isn’t the highest quality — it was taken on a cell phone — but it’s pretty simple to figure out what’s happening. A young man named Oscar Grant is lying on the ground on a BART train platform, surrounded by BART cops. His hands are behind him, and the police have him completely under control.

Grant was one of a group of young men who had been removed from the train and arrested after reports of a fight early in the morning on New Year’s Day. The other suspects are handcuffed; Grant is not, but in early footage, he has his hands in the air and appears to be cooperating. Witnesses on the scene say that’s what they saw — a young man doing what the police told him to do.

Then suddenly — shockingly — one of the officers reaches back and pulls his gun. He points the weapon at Grant, and fires, point-blank, from perhaps two feet away. The bullet entered Grant’s back, ricocheted off the concrete, and hit him again, in the chest.

It’s mind-boggling. It appears to violate so many standards of police conduct we don’t even know where to begin. Oakland lawyer John Burris, who is representing the Grant family, puts the first question pretty succinctly: "Why did he take his gun out?"

Let’s go a few steps further. Why did the BART officer, who has been identified only as a two-year veteran of the force, feel he needed to use lethal force on a suspect who was unarmed, was (at worst) guilty of fighting on a train, and was on the ground with two other cops on top of him? Why did the officer fire his gun at close range, with the prospect not only of hitting his colleagues but also of injuring bystanders? Why didn’t any of the other cops tell him to put the gun away? Why is the young father of a four-year old daughter dead?

We’ll add a few more: Why is BART still in full-on public relations-cover-up mode, acting as if the evidence is still unclear? Why is the name of the officer still a secret?

And why — why, as we’ve asked a dozen times over the past 15 years, do the BART police operate with absolutely no civilian oversight?

The structure of the BART police force is a recipe for disaster. BART’s general manager, (who is not an elected official and has no expertise in law enforcement) hires the BART police chief, who then runs a force with some 200 armed officers. There is no police commission, no police review board, not even a committee of the elected BART board designated to handle complaints against and issues with the BART police.

The BART board holds no regular hearings on police activity or conduct. There is no public forum where the chief is held to account. There is no procedure for complaints against BART officers to be heard and adjudicated by anyone except the BART police.

There is, in other words, no civilian oversight or accountability. This is unacceptable.

The killing of Oscar Grant isn’t an isolated case. Back in 1992, a BART cop pulled a shotgun and killed an unarmed man named Jerrold Hall. Hall wasn’t threatening the officer or anyone else. He was walking away. The shotgun pellets hit him in the back of the head. The officer, Fred Crabtree, was never subject to any discipline, and BART tried to cover up the whole thing (see "Lethal force," 12/9/92). In 2001, a BART cop shot an unarmed naked man who was seriously mentally ill (see "Gun crazy," 10/17/01).

The BART Board simply can’t let this continue. The board must immediately create a process for civilian oversight of the BART police, including a civilian monitor to handle complaints. The BART board must establish a permanent police oversight committee that meets regularly to hear public comments and monitor police practices. Every city that BART passes through, starting with San Francisco, should pass a resolution demanding accountability for the BART cops, and the state Legislature (which granted the BART police peace officer status in 1976) should pass a measure mandating that the BART police have civilian oversight proceedings.

We’re sick of this. How many more people have to die before BART gets its act together?