Gun crazy

BART cop shoots naked man - why?

Editors note: This story ran Oct. 17, 2001

Bruce Seward imploded while riding an AC Transit bus.

It was 4 a.m. on May 28, 2001, and Seward was rolling through the darkness on the 82 line, headed south from Oakland toward Hayward. Hands clapped over his ears, Seward, a 42-year-old car salesman, rocked back and forth, vacilutf8g between sobbing and shouting. He was barefoot, according to witnesses.

Bus driver Anthony Ramsey heard Seward ranting, "They trying to kill me, they trying to kill me."

"Shut up!" one passenger screamed. Another rider threatened to toss Seward off the bus.

Seward morphed, gaining some inner - momentary - calm. "Thank you, God, thank you, God, thank you, God," he chanted.

A few weeks earlier Seward had jetted to Danville, Ill., for his mother's 67th birthday; his mom and eight siblings didn't notice any behavioral peculiarities. But now, quite publicly, the Oakland man's synapses were misfiring.

At the end of the line, the Hayward BART station, Seward got off the bus. An hour later a veteran BART cop named David Betancourt found the rangy African American man outside the station, lying next to a Dumpster, naked and semi<\h>coherent. Betancourt, according to confidential police reports obtained by the Bay Guardian, grabbed Seward and shook him. "Are you OK?" the cop yelled.

"No," Seward shouted, standing up. "No, it's not OK."

Betancourt, police reports indicate, says Seward then charged him. Yanking a can of pepper spray off his belt, the cop blasted the naked man in the face. The chemical spray did nothing.

Then, according to witnesses, Seward grabbed Betancourt's 26-inch-long wooden nightstick. The officer - as he would later tell his superiors - began to fear for his life. Betancourt said he thought Seward would "beat [him] to death" with his own baton or attempt to disarm him and shoot him.

The cop drew his blued steel Glock and squeezed the trigger, dropping Seward with a single .40-caliber slug through the heart.

Seward's demons are buried with him. Family members have few clues about why his mind melted down. They know he survived a similar psychotic episode in the early 1990s. And they know he went to see a psychologist two days before he died. It seems his relationship with an Oakland woman was collapsing; maybe the emotional turmoil had shattered him.

Betancourt, who has 20 years of law-enforcement experience, 8 of them with BART, emerged unharmed from the fatal skirmish; police records show the officer suffered no injuries. His career seems undamaged as well: Betancourt returned to active duty last week after probes by the BART police and the Alameda County District Attorney's Office cleared him of any wrongdoing. The cop had been on paid administrative leave since the incident.

"It's unfortunate that somebody died, but the officer was justified in using deadly force that morning," Betancourt's attorney, Leo Tamisiea, said.

BART police chief Gary Gee concurs. "I think he acted appropriately," Gee told us. "The tussle that took place, the back-and-forth exchange - when it had no effect on [Seward] and the officer feared that he himself was going to suffer serious injury or death, he took the action he felt necessary."

Regardless of BART's official line, a key question remains: did Betancourt really have to kill Seward? It's a question neither asked nor answered in the 90 pages of BART police reports leaked to this paper.

"My brother would still be alive today if the officer was doing his job correctly," Michael Seward, 45, an Illinois state prison guard, told us. "I can't see any justification for shooting an unarmed civilian."

According to almost every major U.S. police department's official guidelines - including those of the BART police - a cop can use deadly force only if the cop reasonably believes his or her life (or the life of another person) is in immediate jeopardy.

Did Betancourt truly think Seward was going to bludgeon him to death?

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