OAKLAND (FinalCall.com) – The arrest and filing of murder charges against the former transit officer, whose New Year’s Day shooting of an unarmed Black man was captured on cell phone videos and spread around the world, brought a small measure of relief to a diverse, national group demanding his full prosecution.
Community leaders, activists and police watch groups say that circumstances surrounding the shooting and various investigations signal much more work needs to be done.
Johannes Mehserle was in South Lake Tahoe, Nev., when police arrested him on suspicion of murder on Jan. 13. His attorney, Christopher Miller, said he went to Nevada to escape death threats and the pressures of the pending investigations.
“He was in constant communication with my office and was always prepared to surrender himself if charges were filed. There was no effort whatsoever to avoid arrest,” Atty. Miller said. Mr. Mehserle is due back in court on Jan. 26 for a bail hearing.
District Attorney Tom Orloff said that he filed murder charges because the evidence revealed an unlawful killing done by an intentional act. He told reporters, “I would hope that people would have the respect for the system in which I’ve worked for 39 years and would watch to make their judgments based on how the system functions and let the criminal justice system play this out.”
“The DA has no intention of prosecuting this police officer. He was forced by the will of the people who mobilized and organized and put pressure, which forced him to act in a way that he did not intend to act. By the time the community started organizing, it had already been a full seven days where the community patiently waited for justice to be served in this case. I’ve never heard of a DA being so slow,” said Nation of Islam Student Min. Christopher Muhammad of San Francisco.
Many have speculated that the arrest was a ploy to defuse a major rally planned for Jan. 14 because the city feared protestors would cause more property damage. Approximately 2,000 people attended the demonstration without incident, sources said.
Lynette Sweet, a BART board member, who has publicly expressed her concerns over how the transit agency and Chief Gary Gee handled the shooting, has called for Chief Gee and General Manager Dorothy Dugger to both step down. She only has two of the five votes needed for the nine-member board to remove them.
“They handled this from the start with a lack of information. We had an opportunity to compel that Officer Mehserle speak to us and we did not. They made all kinds of accommodations to interrogate him when it was convenient for him. And so five days after the incident, when he was supposed to come in, he had his attorney deliver his resignation letter. That was totally unacceptable,” Ms. Sweet said.
In addition, Ms. Sweet told The Final Call, Chief Gee never informed the elected BART board that he had questioned other officers who were on the platform at the time of the shooting, or that there were other complaints filed against Mr. Mehserle.
“We’re the board. Tell us what we’re dealing with. Don’t send us out there not knowing that either he’s a good guy or he’s a racist. If it was a mistake and an honest mistake, say that but by not telling us, all that we can surmise is that it was a rogue cop out there who shot a Black unarmed man,” Ms. Sweet said.
On Jan. 12, according to board member Dr. Carol Allen, the agency established a board committee, to review police practices and procedures, including hiring and training. Mr. Grant’s shooting occurred in her district.
Ms. Dugger said that the Grant shooting is not reflective of BART, its police or employees, but police watch groups argue that evidence states otherwise. On Nov. 15, 1992, BART officer Fred Crabtree shot and killed Jerrold Hall in the back of the head with a 12-gauge shotgun. He had approached Mr. Hall and another Black male friend, who were standing at a bus stop near a BART entrance in Hayward because they fit the description of two men accused of robbery. BART cleared the officer, but in 1996, he committed suicide by hanging.
“This is an indication that we haven’t moved off our dime and that what policing represents in this country is still very oppressive and dangerous for Black people. And all this talk about training, diversity and education haven’t improved how police officers ultimately have to deal with Black and brown people and other people of color because we continue to see these types of situations,” said Ronald Hampton, executive director of the National Black Police Association.
On Jan. 17, Mayor Ron Dellums’ Youth and Violence Task Force and community partners opened three Healing Centers throughout Oakland for about four hours each to provide a space for the youth to grieve.
Beatrice X, Task Force co-chair, said the Healing Centers had been in the works for several years. “I think this is only a beginning because our community needs so much healing. During one task force meeting, some of the youth told us that they had seen 15 of their friends murdered in one year. To hear someone who is 14- to 15-years-old saying that, just took me aback, and I knew we had to act,” she said.
In earlier reports on national police violence cases, The Final Call indicated that Paul Tolan of Bellaire, Texas, had succumbed to his gunshot wounds suffered at the hands of a White police officer on Dec. 31, but the 22-year-old survived.
Fatal shooting of unarmed man sparks outrage (FCN, 01/19/2009)
Cell Phones Usher in New Era of Police Accountability (FCN, 01/19/2009)
Web Video of police shooting in Oakland (KTVU Report)
Urban Terrorists in America? (FCN, 03/20/2008)