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BART board creates commission to oversee transit police

In the wake of a fatal shooting by a transit officer, one board member calls for agency's police chief and general manager to step down. Fear and anger over the shooting are rife in Oakland.

January 13, 2009|Maria L. La Ganga

OAKLAND — Transit police Monday wrapped up their investigation into the controversial shooting death of an African American man by an officer and, just hours later, the Bay Area Rapid Transit District board created a panel to oversee police department activities.

BART Police Chief Gary Gee said his department forwarded the investigation results Monday morning to the Alameda County district attorney's office, which will decide whether to charge transit Officer Johannes Mehserle in the death of Oscar J. Grant III.

Gee said during an afternoon news conference that his department has not come to any conclusions about the shooting and has made no recommendation to the district attorney.

"I'm not able to say whether there's enough for the district attorney to file criminal charges," Gee said in response to a question. "This is a continuing investigation."

At a special meeting shortly after the announcement, the BART Board of Directors voted unanimously to create a transit police department review committee, consisting of four members of the board. The committee will review policies and keep tabs on "major police incidents."

More than a dozen people in the audience castigated the board before the vote, angry that the details of the shooting remain cloaked in mystery, demanding that community members be included on the review board and calling for Mehserle to be put behind bars.

"A crime has been committed," said Toby Blome, who described herself as a peace activist from El Cerrito. "This officer needs to be arrested. He needs to be arrested right now."

Immediately after the vote, BART board member Lynette Sweet told reporters that Gee and BART General Manager Dorothy Dugger should step down because they have mishandled the aftermath of the shooting and communication about the incident.

"It's a nightmare that didn't have to happen," Sweet said. Dugger and Gee "are letting [board members] go out as the face of what happened without enough information, and it's so totally wrong."

Although Sweet questioned whether she could round up a majority of board members to support her, she said, "I can vote to say, 'Heck, yeah, they got to go.' "

Grant, a 22-year-old father, had been celebrating New Year's Eve in San Francisco and was heading back home to Hayward aboard a BART train when a fight broke out between two groups of riders about 2 a.m.

BART police met the train at Oakland's Fruitvale Station and ordered passengers out onto the platform. Grainy cellphone videos broadcast on the Internet and local television show Grant lying face-down when Mehserle reaches for his gun and shoots him in the back.

There has been speculation that Mehserle may have thought he was reaching for a Taser and planned to stun Grant, not kill him. Gee said Monday that his officers began carrying Tasers about two months ago and that Mehserle had one when he shot Grant.

Gee said BART investigators interviewed all of the officers involved in the incident in the hours after the shooting. Mehserle, who immediately contacted a lawyer, was the only officer who refused to comment on the grounds that it might incriminate him.

Many who addressed the BART board Monday afternoon said Grant wasn't the only victim of the New Year's Day shooting, and pointed to the violence that has erupted at ensuing demonstrations.

Boarded-up businesses along 17th Street in downtown Oakland are sporting signs that read, "Shattered glass but not shattered dreams. Keep 17th Street alive."

Frank Tucker, a board member of the Oakland African-American Chamber of Commerce, said that at least one client of his technology firm has been afraid to venture to his downtown offices and that productivity is down because workers are curtailing their hours out of fear for their safety.

Said Connie Rainey, a BART station agent from San Leandro: "I worked the stations for 38 years, and I'm ashamed as a BART employee to stand here and address my leaders."

Tracie Cooper of San Leandro told the BART board Monday afternoon that her 22-year-old son also was on the BART platform and saw his friend of 17 years shot to death.

Cooper said her son and other young men on the platform that night "are not doing good at all. . . . That means the mothers and fathers of the boys are not doing well."

"We have always taught our children that if they were ever accosted by the police to submit," Cooper said.

"Every police officer that was on that podium, they helped cover up, they helped hide what this one police officer did. All of them should be prosecuted," she said.

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maria.laganga@latimes.com

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