After the New Year’s Day 2009 shooting of a face-down Oscar Grant III by then-BART police officer Johannes Mehserle at the Fruitvale station triggered regional rage and Oakland street rioting, BART issued regrets galore. The board pledged to clean up its police practices to be more responsive to community feelings.
But now two weeks after the fatal shooting of homeless and allegedly drunken 45-year-old Charles Hill at San Francisco’s Civic Center station, the public knows less about why that happened than it knew within 48 hours about the Oscar Grant killing. Apparently the big difference is that on New Year’s Day 2009, the station platform was packed with witnesses who recorded the melee with their cellphone cameras and wasted no time offering video clips to local TV stations.
For whatever reason, independent eyewitness videos have not yet emerged this time — even though supposedly 40 witnesses are in the process of being questioned. Instead, we’ve had two awkwardly uninformative news conferences where new BART police Chief Kenton Rainey tried to deflect questioners by trotting out the long-familiar law enforcement clichés of excessive-force alibis.
According to Rainey, the shooting was justified because Hill was wielding a bottle (possibly broken) and armed with either one or two knives. Therefore the two on-scene officers had reason to fear for their safety, and in fact one officer may have suffered cuts on his arm from shards of glass. No additional information would be provided until completion of all four ongoing investigations by BART internal affairs, the new BART independent police auditor, the San Francisco Police Department and the District Attorney’s Office. We’ve all heard this sort of thing before, and it used to be considerably more convincing before millions of people started walking around with digital video cameras in their pockets.
It also leaves virtually every significant question unanswered. For example: The entire confrontation took just about one minute, so how threatening might the staggering Hill have been against two policemen armed with guns and one Taser? Why haven’t at least the basic field reports on the shooting been released? How much longer will BART refuse to show its platform surveillance video, which reportedly shows part of the incident?
The San Francisco Examiner recognizes that police have stressful and often-dangerous jobs. So without anything close to sufficient facts about the July 3 shooting, it would be improper to accuse the two Civic Center officers of any wrongdoing. At this point, our argument is with BART for the clueless way it has been handling the situation.
Several BART directors have had the decency to express their displeasure about the slow progress of the multiple investigations, the lack of timetables for completion and the predictable fueling of public suspicions by a blackout on information. It’s unfortunate that most of BART still doesn’t seem to have learned enough lessons from its 2009 Grant-Mehserle debacle and is again acting as if it has something to cover up.