BART directors apologize to slain man's family

Friday, January 9, 2009


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(01-08) 13:13 PST Oakland -- After sitting silently through more than five hours of public testimony laced with outrage, sadness and demands for justice over the fatal shooting of an unarmed man by a BART police officer, the Bay Area rail agency's elected directors one by one offered apologies, some of them tearful, to the victim's family.

They also vowed to mend relations with the community.

"We must learn from our mistakes and we must make sure this never happens again," Director Carole Ward Allen told the crowd. "I want to hear everything you have to say. You have every right to hold us accountable."

The directors and BART General Manager Dorothy Dugger promised a thorough investigation into the killing of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old Hayward father who was shot and killed by BART police Officer Johannes Mehserle early New Year's Day on the platform at the Fruitvale Station in Oakland.

"Whether it was a tragic accident or something else is a question that the investigations hopefully will answer," said board President Thomas Blalock.

Mehserle was one of several officers who were attempting to restore order following reports of a fight aboard a train. Video footage of the shooting, captured by fellow passengers and made available on Web sites, has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times.

Mehserle resigned from the force and refused to give an account of what happened. A lawyer representing Grant's family has filed a $25 million claim against BART.

"That man did nothing wrong that should have cost him his life," said Director Joel Keller, who broke down during his remarks.

"The fact this has happened is crushing," added Director Bob Franklin.

The directors, who took no official action Thursday, announced several initiatives they plan to pursue in coming weeks.

Among them:

-- Creating a board committee to examine BART police procedures.

-- Bringing in the state attorney general and the U.S. Department of Justice to help investigate the incident; BART, the Alameda County district attorney's office and the Oakland Police Department already are involved in the investigation.

-- Creating a civilian police oversight system - a recommendation echoed Thursday by state Sen. Leland Yee and Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, both San Francisco Democrats. They proposed legislation Thursday to move the plan forward.

-- Holding a community forum, perhaps as early as Saturday.

The board began its session with a moment of silence in honor of Grant, and with an offer of condolences to his family.

The directors' comments came after testimony of citizens and elected officials who crammed into the board's main hearing room and two overflow rooms nearby as they waited to be heard. Dozens more stood outside the building at 20th and Harrison streets.

"There's a community that is outraged, there is a community that is angry as a result of what we saw on these videos," Oakland City Council member Desley Brooks told the board.

Agency officials have been under fire from some community members for not moving fast enough on the investigation or in addressing public concerns. Several board members and high-ranking officials said they have been working behind the scenes, and acknowledged they could have done a better job communicating.

"We have not handled this correctly, and we know it," BART Director Lynette Sweet said.

Agency spokesman Linton Johnson said BART is consulting with the same crisis communications strategist who worked with the San Francisco Zoo after the fatal Christmas Day 2007 tiger mauling, to help handle the fallout and get out the agency's message of sorrow and vow to be open about what happened without jeopardizing the investigations.

Thursday's regular BART board meeting agenda was scrapped to allow the public to address the board. It was their first chance to address BART officials since the killing. Speakers were allowed three minutes each, but many of them ran over the time limit and were not cut off. Among the speakers were black clergy members, NAACP leaders and community organizers.

"We need some accountability on the part of BART," said the Rev. Lawrence VanHook, pastor of Community Christian Church for Christ in Oakland. "The only way to restore public confidence is to bring this man to justice immediately."

Dereca Blackmon of a group called Coalition Against Police Execution said, "We want this moment to be a beginning of the end of police brutality - not just in Oakland, but across this country."

Another speaker, who identified himself as Neder Bey, demanded the arrest of the BART officer involved in the shooting and told the board that if protesters "want to riot and tear up the city, I say God bless them."

E-mail the writers at rgordon@sfchronicle.com and srubenstein@sfchronicle.com.

This article appeared on page A - 12 of the San Francisco Chronicle


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