Monday, June 13, 2011

The Tragedy of Johannes Mehserle and Oscar Grant - A Shot Heard Around the Bay

Today, Johannes Mehserle is released on parole from prison after less than a year of imprisonment. He shot Oscar Grant, a black twenty-two year old unarmed train passenger, in the back, killing him, on News Years Day, 2009, in a Bay Area Rapid Transit (B.A.R.T) train car. Mehserle was a B.A.R.T. policeman. Even with a number of cellphone videos of the event, there are arguments about what really happened. This video-news report by Channel 2 T. V. is one of the better reports on the event. Watch closely and you can see Mehserle stand up, remove his pistol and shoot, and the other B.A.R.T. police standing up, appearing to be surprised. Mehserle later claimed that he thought he was grabbing his Taser, but it appears that even a Taser wasn't really needed. Grant was down, laying flat on the floor, his hands behind his back and under the control of at least four policemen. Grant's two friends were watching, not interfering. So, how and why did this happen?

The claims, shouted from all directions, range from racist cops and police brutality to uncontrolled and excessive use of force to lack of training. Street demonstrations in Oakland's streets turned into destructive riots. There is another demonstration planned today on Mehserle's release, after serving only eleven months of a two-year sentence. I understand the frustration and belief that justice was not served when a guy who shoots and kills another person receives only a two-year sentence for the deed and then gets out after serving only eleven months. I see that point of view, but I can't say that justice was not served in regards to Mehserle in this case, or that Mehserle was the real culprit in the shooting. After all is said and done, after two years of reading investigative reports about the case and watching news reports of investigations, I think Mehserle may have been just as much a victim as Grant was. He was caught in the center of mismanagement and bad policy, procedure and training. Here's why I say that.

One aspect of the case included an investigation into B.A.R.T., its management and its police. Its management is accomplished by a nine-member board of directors elected by the citizens living in the Bay Area. These nine approve and set policy, establish procedures and budgets, including police manpower and training budgets. B.A.R.T. is consistently in debt. Watching the public hearings and director meetings, it doesn't take long to notice that the qualifications of people elected to positions of management are dubious at best. Voters simply don't know the qualifications of the people they vote for and it was glaringly obvious in B.A.R.T.'s case. For example, the board listened to, and agreed with, the B.A.R.T.'s Police Chief's claim "that his police were trained and qualified higher than California standards...." That seemed to satisfy the board. Really? Later testimony didn't satisfy me. Maybe I'm just a hard-headed skeptic.

According to reports, Mehserle had six hours of Taser training, including how not to confuse his Taser with his gun. I need to emphasize the length - six hours. One of the best police training regimens in California is the Highway Patrol Academy - 27 weeks of intense, 24/7 training including days and days of use of deadly force. Deadly force includes the use of guns and Tasers. That simple comparison is alarming to me. Six hours of training doesn't give me a rosy feeling about his qualifications to use a Taser, or even a gun for that matter, or to be able to tell them apart in a high-stress situation.

A lot of people scoff at the idea that training, or the lack of it, actually causes tragedies like Grant's, but I don't. If police training is anything like military training, then police training will save both police and civilian lives. The only other qualification Mehserle needed to become a B.A.R.T. police was 36 hours of accredited college. As I understand, all other training he received was specific to his assignment, such as pistol qualifications, jurisdiction laws, extent of authority, etc. That really doesn't tell me how many hours, days or weeks he drilled, practiced and tested his abilities or even passed exams that qualified him to be a police officer. Training for high-stress situations involves a lot of drilling and practice. The intent of training for conflict that police might face is to develop an automatic reaction and response that overrides human instinct, the instinct of survival. Instinct isn't a reliable survival technique. In fact, instinct is more likely to be an instinct to run rather than stay the course. It could also be instinct that causes some to rush into dangerous situations when more evaluation is called for. Both cases could be disastrous for the greater good.

So, I'm not impressed with Mehserle's training. I don't think he was trained to handle a high-stress situation. Mehserle said that he had "a feeling of being out numbered, overwhelmed by Grant and his friends," yet there were four policemen and only three suspects, including Grant, and Grant voluntarily lay on the floor when asked to and the other two were simply watching events unfold and not interfering. Mehserle's comment is a clear sign to me that Mehserle was panicking; his emotions were out of control and his imagination was too active. His animal instinct was paramount and in control. He was on the verge of either running or rushing in. Adrenaline had taken over. He rushed in. He wasn't thinking or evaluating. He was not seeing what was actually happening nor did he have the developed automatic responses necessary for the task.

All of that said, there was a glaring omission in all of the reports and investigations into this case, a question I didn't hear: Just how, in God's name, did the B.A.R.T. come to have a police force in the first place? Did not a single reporter or investigator think to ask that question? B.A.R.T. is a transit company. It is not a city, a county, a state or federal government, yet the B.A.R.T. police have state-wide authority to arrest, detain and act with the authority of police anywhere and anytime. Its claimed jurisdiction is limited to the trains, yet it has police cars that cruise the local communities and, from what I understand, respond to local city and county police calls. A B.A.R.T. policeman transits through the cities and counties in the Bay area without limits. Their authority appears to be limitless while their training is limited. Then, to top it all, B.A.R.T. has been running a consistent debt for years, relying on sales tax bailout year after year. It has accumulated nearly $40 million in debt and half of SamTrans sales tax revenue, around $80 million, goes to servicing the B.A.R.T. debt, paying the interest. I simply don't get the idea that B.A.R.T. needs its own police force. Nor can it afford a police force. Oakland and Alameda County can respond to incidents on B.A.R.T. trains in their areas. So can any other city or county in the area.

Maybe more answers will come out of the $24 million lawsuit filed by Grant's family. I hope it does. Personally, the lawsuit is where I think justice lies. I don't think imprisoning Mehserle will bring justice, for Grant's family or Mehserle. He will have to live with his own conscience. I think that will devastate him, probably for a lifetime.


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