Friday, August 21, 2009

Independent probe of BART shooting finds fault with police response

Well, we can only hope that the Bay Area Rapid Transit agency (BART) didn't spend too much taxpayer money for the investigation of a fatal New Year's Day shooting at Fruitvale Station it hired a San Francisco law firm to conduct. It didn't take a team of geniuses to conclude, as the investigation did in a public report released Aug. 18, that the police response to a disturbance on a train in Oakland that took the life of a young man was sadly inadequate. "The tactics of BART PD at the field level were seriously deficient," the report said. But everybody realizes that, or should, particularly the BART police. A man was shot and killed by a police officer, a shooting famously caught on the cell phone cameras of passengers, despite having complied with police orders to lie on the floor of the station platform. The non-public portion of the report, not released publicly because it concerned police police personnel matters, probably probes the thinking of police officers on the scene -- including Johannes Mehserle, who is charged with firing the fatal shot. Mehserle, who resigned from the BART police force after the shooting, is free on $3 million bail. The California Supreme Court refused to lower his bail last month. But the public part of the report raises major questions about the training and competence of the BART police -- which cast an unpleasant shadow over the leadership of this vital public agency. In addition, it raises the possibility that other police agencies in the San Francisco Bay Area are stuck in the same cycle of incompetence. According to the report, BART does not have a protocol for notifying supervisory personnel in the event of a serious incident, probably because incidents are rare on the transit system. As a result, the report said, there was inadequate supervision of and no command structure for the police officers on the train platform when Mehserle was shot. Perhaps because of that, or because of inadequate training, BART police did not follow best practices for law enforcement personnel confronted with such an incident, the report concluded. Officers involved in the incident were not immediately debriefed, Mehserle was not compelled to undergo counseling, witnesses were allowed to leave without being interviewed, and officers involved were shown video of the shooting before being questioned by BART investigators. The people of the Bay Area, and of any community in any state, have a right to expect that public employees are trained and supervised. This should go without saying, but the report had to state it directly because the BART police apparently had no appreciation of the obvious. This stuff is not hard. Law enforcement agencies must get it right or face being disbanded. That, it seems, is the best thing for the BART Police Department. For a link to the report, see

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