Former BART police officer Johannes Mehserle testified in federal court in San Francisco today that he feared an unruly passenger was going to attack another officer and then Mehserle himself in an incident at an Oakland station three years ago.
“I had no doubt he was going to hit Officer Guanzon on the head,” Mehserle testified about the actions of Kenneth Carrethers, 43, of Oakland.
“I was very concerned for Officer Guanzon's safety. I reached forward to grab him to keep him from striking Officer Guanzon,” Mehserle told the jury in the court of U.S. District Judge Edward Chen in the trial of a civil rights lawsuit filed by Carrethers.
Mehserle, 29, Officer Frederick Guanzon, three other officers and BART are defendants in the lawsuit.
Carrethers claims the officers injured him and violated his constitutional rights by using excessive force in the confrontation at BART's Coliseum/Oakland Airport station on Nov. 15, 2008.
The incident occurred six and a half weeks before Mehserle shot and killed an unarmed Hayward man, Oscar Grant, at the transit agency's Fruitvale station on New Year's Day in 2009.
Mehserle, who said he accidentally used his revolver when he meant to use his Taser stun gun, was convicted in a highly publicized trial of involuntary manslaughter and served about a year of a two-year sentence.
In the November 2008 incident, Carrethers contends that Mehserle knocked him to the ground without warning him he was being arrested and that the five officers allegedly then piled on top of him and kicked, punched and hog-tied him.
Carrethers was treated at a hospital and then jailed for two days and charged with threatening an officer and resisting arrest. The Alameda County district attorney dismissed the charges two months later on grounds of insufficient evidence.
Carrethers was returning home from his job as a San Francisco hotel engineer at 10:30 p.m. and was upset because his car had previously been broken into twice at the Coliseum station parking lot.
Both sides agree that he criticized the officers for being lazy and incompetent as he passed by them in the station and that he cursed them in obscene language.
Carrethers maintains he was not violent and was merely exercising his constitutional free-speech right to criticize the officers, while BART and the officers claim he posed “a real, immediate physical threat” and that their actions were reasonable.
Mehserle was on the stand for four hours today, first as a so-called hostile witness called by Carrethers' attorney, Chris Dolan, and then in cross-examination by BART attorney Dale Allen, who represents Mehserle, the other officers and transit district.
Mehserle said the physical struggle took place “in a matter of seconds” after Carrethers started to leave the station but then returned and was “trailing” Guanzon while cursing him.
He said he believed Carrethers was about to strike Guanzon when Carrethers raised his hands to waist level with clenched fists. Merhserle said he was following behind Carrethers and tried to grab Carrethers' hand in a wristlock but grasped his forearm instead.
Carrethers then wrenched himself free, pivoted and faced Mehserle in a “fighting posture” that caused Mehserle to believe he was now about to be attacked, the former officer testified.
“Did you believe Mr. Carrethers was going to strike you?” Allen asked.
“Yes,” Mehserle answered.
“Did you believe Mr. Carrethers was going to strike Officer Guanzon?” Allen continued.
“Yes,” Mehserle answered again.
He testified he brought Carrethers to the ground with a foot sweep against his legs and restrained his legs with a hobble while the other officers handcuffed him.
Mehserle denied that the officers hog-tied Carrethers, which he defined as pulling the restrained hands and feet together with a strap, and said he only hobbled him.
Under questioning from Dolan, Mehserle said he didn't mention Carrethers' alleged raising of his hands with clenched fists in a police report he prepared on the morning of Nov. 16, 2008.
He also said he didn't call a BART hotline to ask that surveillance videos of the incident be preserved.
Mehserle said, “I didn't think I needed to do that” because he thought his observations and those of the other officers and two BART station agents would be adequate to support the charges filed against Carrethers.
“I thought the evidence was sufficient at the time,” Mehserle said.
He denied that any of the officers kicked or punched Carrethers and said at the time, he didn't notice a contusion under Carrethers' eye that was shown in a Nov. 16 jail booking picture.
The other officers named in the lawsuit are Sgt. Keith Smith and Officers Douglas Horner and Robert Haney.
Testimony before the eight-member jury will resume Monday and is expected to continue at least through Wednesday, after which the jury will begin deliberations.
Carrethers is seeking unspecified financial compensation for alleged pain, humiliation, lost pay and medical expenses.