Critics, officers debate need for BART police force

Protesters made a clear and simple demand when they tried to shut down BART service this past summer: Disband the cops.

The raucous pleas that followed the officer-involved shooting death of Charles Hill weren’t new. BART police have been responsible for four shooting deaths in four decades, and each one has sparked widespread outrage leading to calls for the department’s dissolution.

Like clockwork, the same questions arise every time: Why does BART need police? What do they do? Would passengers be safe without them?

“BART police, time and again, have proven themselves to be a violent force — they literally kill people,” said Callie Maidhof, spokeswoman for the No Justice, No BART campaign, which spearheaded this past summer’s protests. “We aren’t looking for a police review, we’re looking for the abolition of the BART police.”

But BART officials say the transit system’s 104 miles of track, linking 26 municipalities and four counties, presents unique safety challenges that require a police force specifically trained to confront crime on the move.

“The general public thinks we’re glorified security guards,” said Officer Mike Kalagayan, who patrols trains between the Embarcadero and Powell Street stations. “They don’t understand that there is a need for a police force.”

Crime is a part of everyday life in many neighborhoods, and it often spills onto BART’s parking lots and rails.

Officers respond to roughly 43,000 calls a year, including everything from bike theft to aggravated assault.

Although fare evasion is the most common crime, BART police responded to 351 auto thefts, 140 robberies, 39 assaults and two rapes last year. Over the last three years, the department has made an average of 1,857 felony and misdemeanor arrests per year.

Much of the crime occurs in station parking lots, which is why the force is equipped with vehicles. But officers in The City ride trains because only one station has a parking lot.

At its birth, BART envisioned local police and sheriff’s departments patrolling its trains and stations. But city officials quickly rejected that idea, foreseeing jurisdictional disputes, policy inconsistencies and coordination problems if local police forces had to patrol the rails together.  

“I don’t know what the alternative would be,” said BART board President Bob Franklin. “Local police departments are taxed, and patrolling BART might not be a city’s top priority.”

And policing the rails presents its own set of challenges, officers say. For instance, Deputy Chief Benson Fairow says other police aren’t trained to follow suspects onto the tracks or into the Transbay Tube. They also lack expertise in managing a number of tense scenarios that can unfold around the system’s 1,000-volt third rail.

“You might end up with an officer who’s not familiar with these things, and that’s when mistakes get made,” he said.
Despite misperceptions, Fairow said BART police undergo more specialized training than the average city cop. For instance, every BART officer must undergo a week of what is called Contrived Professional Training every year, where courses on decision-making, arrest and control, ethical use of force, first aid and incident response to terrorist bombing are taught. He also said the department’s Taser curriculum goes beyond certification.

One major criticism of the Charles Hill shooting was that the involved officer hadn’t undergone crisis-intervention training for managing confrontations with mentally ill citizens. But BART public information officer James Allison said the department is currently working hard to ensure that its force is better equipped to handle such situations.

Right now, 37 of the department’s 290 sworn officers have completed such training and 19 more will in the next 90 days. By comparison, Allison said only 18 Oakland police officers have completed such training.

BART police said the rent-a-cop stereotype is inaccurate because they have more actual policing experience on their force than most city departments. Officer William Schaffer, who was previously an Oakland cop, said more than half of BART’s sworn officers joined the force after policing a city beat somewhere else.

“There’s a lot of lateral experience on this force,” he said. “I’m from Oakland, so I’ve been involved in many shootings. It’s not like we’re green.”

But critics are unconvinced. Maidhof said the problem is about more than training and experience: It’s systemic.

“It’s top-down, starting with the board,” she said. “It’s a systematic problem rather than just a couple of bad apples.”

While officer-involved shootings catch headlines, Schaffer said, small acts of heroism go unnoticed. For example, on Oct. 25 he was alerted that a passenger on board a train at Powell Street station was holding a 6-inch chef’s knife. Schaffer said the suspect had her back to him, so he snuck up behind her and grabbed her wrist. As she lifted the knife toward herself and him, he said, his partner reached around the other shoulder and disarmed her. Schaffer said that while he would have been justified to strike her or use a Taser, he subdued her instead and no one was hurt.      

“People don’t always realize that you evaluate the situation quickly and it can escalate quickly,” Schaffer said. “There is a lot of good judgment and discretion that gets used out there, and that doesn’t always come to the surface.”

Questions plague BART about how much authority its new auditor has

Mark Smith appears to have all the qualifications necessary to be BART’s first-ever independent police auditor. But some BART critics question whether his office has the teeth to provide true oversight.

BART’s independent police auditor’s office was created after the Police Department was heavily scrutinized for its handling of the Oscar Grant III shooting investigation. The goal of the office is to not only provide oversight of internal investigations, but to give the public a venue where citizens can issue complaints of misconduct and have confidence they will be reviewed without interference from the Police Department.

“I want the public to be assured that if they issue a complaint, I will provide them with an unbiased, thorough and transparent response,” Smith said.

But Cephus “Uncle Bobby” Johnson, co-founder of the Oscar Grant Foundation, said the office lacks real authority. The problem, Johnson said, is that Smith’s recommendations need to be approved by a newly formed, 11-member citizen review board before being submitted to the chief of police for appropriate action, and if the chief disagrees, he can appeal to the general manager to make a final determination.

“He’s not really independent,” Johnson said. “Even if he determines it’s a wrongful shooting, he still has to go through the civilian board, the chief and the GM.”

Smith said that while Johnson’s concerns are plausible, one benefit of the checks and balances system is that it ensures input from multiple players.

“There are pros and cons to it,” he said. “The end result is that it isn’t just one entity having input.”

Smith brings a boatload of experience to the position having previously served in police review positions overseeing the Los Angeles and Chicago police departments.

It didn’t take long before Smith had to put that experience to use. After only six days on the job, BART launched one of the most high-profile internal police investigations in its history following the officer-involved shooting death of Charles Hill.

Smith said his duty isn’t to conduct an autonomous investigation, but to monitor BART’s own internal affairs review. Some critics are questioning why the investigation is taking so long, but Smith said cases of this magnitude can be time-consuming because many variables that need to be thoroughly examined are in play. He said that he couldn’t elaborate on the details of his investigation, how far along it is or when it will be completed.

“If I found any indication that someone was trying to delay things, it would unquestionably be grounds for a pretty harsh review,” Smith said.


Tale of the tracks

History of BART police:

1972: Force debuts with about 12 officers
1987: First homicide at a BART station
1990: First homicide aboard a BART train
1991: Force increases to 125 officers
1992: First fatal officer-involved shooting in BART history
1994: Force increases to 150 officers
2001: Second fatal officer-involved shooting
2002: Force increases to 188 officers
2009: Oscar Grant III killed
2011: Charles Hill killed

Source: BART, news reports

BART police at a glance

$48,177,787: Total police department budget
198: Total sworn officers
26: Cities
12: Field offices
81: Police vehicles
214: Tasers
$814.95: Cost per Taser

Source: BART

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