Oakland school cop comes forward as a whistleblower

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Family and friends of Raheim Brown protested outside Oakland School Police Department headquarters last year.
GUARDIAN FILE PHOTO BY YAEL CHANOFF

Two years after his involvement in a police shooting that took the life of a 20-year-old African American man, an Oakland School Police Department officer has come forward as a “whistleblower” in sworn testimony, making allegations of unethical behavior within a department that is already under the scrutiny of federal investigators.

In a deposition delivered earlier this month as part of a civil suit, police Sergeant Jonathan Bellusa gave a detailed account of what transpired just before his patrol partner, Sgt. Barhin Bhatt, fired several rounds and killed Raheim Brown as the youth was positioned in the passenger’s seat of a car outside a high school dance in January of 2011.

Bellusa gave testimony that in the months that followed, he came under retaliatory pressure from within the department and was “uncomfortable” with various aspects of how the investigation unfolded.

An unedited, uncertified transcript of Bellusa’s deposition, which contains some grammatical and punctuation errors because it was transcribed by an automated system, was made public Feb. 28 by a group of activists organized under a project called “Against Hired Guns.” The group sent a detailed summary and analysis of the deposition, as well as the unedited transcript, to reporters. The activists also posted the contents on a website, againsthiredguns.wordpress.com.

Asked who is behind Against Hired Guns, spokesperson Cat Brooks said they are Oakland activists “who have been doing this work either together on campaigns, or separately inside of our own groups, that see strength in numbers rather than apart. We in general are tired of having flashpoint reactions to police corruption or violence, and are interested in bringing as many people or groups together as possible to have a sustained campaign that is focused on eradicating police violence.”

Bellusa is currently on leave from employment at the Oakland school police department, and the Guardian was unable to reach him by phone on the number listed on the OUSD website. “He’s been gone for quite awhile,” OUSD spokesperson Troy Flint told the Guardian when reached by phone. Asked to comment on the myriad allegations raised in Bellusa’s testimony, Flint said, “We're going to refrain from comment until we've seen the actual suit.”

The deposition was conducted by Attorney Adante Pointer of the Law Offices of John Burris, in connection with a civil rights suit that is being filed against OUSD by Brown’s mother, Lori Davis. Reached by phone, Pointer confirmed that he had taken Bellusa’s deposition several weeks ago, and was surprised that its contents had been made public, since it “is not complete yet.” He added, “I’m thinking to myself, who put that out there?” As of press time, Pointer had not returned a follow up phone call.

Brooks declined to answer questions about how the activists obtained a copy of the uncertified transcript.

Allegations of retaliation for whistleblowing

Roughly a month after the shooting incident, Bellusa said in his deposition, former OUSD Police Chief Pete Sarna let out “a boisterous yell with his [fist] up in the air” and seemed “excited” that “we as a department don't have to worry about anything.” According to Bellusa’s testimony, Sarna had just received word that his “friend” Pete Peterson had “agreed to do the investigation” of the fatal shooting of Brown.

Asked if he felt pressured by supervisors to make statements consistent with Bhatt’s account of the shooting incident, Bellusa stated, “I have felt that if I gave statements that went against the district that I would be thrown in jail for perjury.”

In the months after the shooting, Bellusa testified that he filed a formal complaint alleging that Sarna drunkenly made racist remarks to an African American sergeant in July of 2011. Sarna resigned the following month.

Bellusa also testified that on an August morning in 2011, after he’d filed the complaint against Sarna for allegedly making racial slurs, he overheard a conversation between OUSD General Counsel Jacqueline Minor and Superintendent Tony Smith. “I over heard Jackie Minor… say they were not going to let John get away with this,” he stated.

In another incident, Bellusa testified that a different OUSD officer informed him that “Chief Sarna’s assistant, Jenny Wong, told a bunch of officers something like: ‘Don't worry, Sarna is going to beat this case. He’s going to fire John [Bellusa].’”

After Sarna stepped down, Bhatt was briefly appointed interim police chief, unleashing an outcry from OUSD parents outraged that an officer would be promoted to the top post after shooting and killing Brown just months before. Alameda County prosecutors had since cleared Bhatt of any wrongdoing in the shooting that resulted in Brown’s death.

In response to the backlash, Bhatt was removed and replaced with Police Chief James Williams in September of 2011. The shooting of Brown, coupled with Sarna’s alleged use of racial slurs, prompted a federal grand jury investigation into the OUSD police force last year. Bellusa noted in his testimony that he had described his experience to federal investigators.

Taken as a whole, Bellusa’s testimony renders a disturbing internal portrait of the Oakland School Police Department, which consists of about a dozen officers and operates independently of the Oakland Police Department as a division of the school district.

The alarming account raises serious questions about internal operations of the department, particularly since it is an independent force operated by the school district at a time when funding cuts have placed the public school system under tremendous budgetary pressure, resulting in recent school closures.

Allegations of corruption

A detailed summary of the transcript provided by Against Hired Guns highlights more disturbing allegations made by Bellusa in the course of his testimony. Among them:

  • Bellusa asserted that he witnessed Bhatt pour Wild Turkey into a glass while he was on duty. He also said he felt concerned about Bhatt after observing him “clean his firearm for a long period of time.”                                                                      
  • Bellusa testified that he “found out” that Sarna and Lou Silva, a former OUSD officer and current district-wide Campus Security and Safety Manager, were “sending their personal cars down to a shop on 16th Avenue… [and] were overcharging the police cars,” apparently in order to have their personal cars repaired for free or at a deep discount.
  • Bellusa testified, “I found out that he [Sarna] called another officer [and] told him [not to report] what had happened in front of the African American who is a witness to the … racial slurs.”

Officer-involved shooting

Brown was shot and killed outside a dance at Oakland’s Skyline High School on Jan. 22, 2011. He was sitting in the passenger’s seat of a Honda with a friend, Tamisha Stewart, who was in the driver’s seat. Bellusa and Bhatt pulled up behind them in an unmarked patrol car after noticing the lights of the Honda were flashing. Bhatt made his way to the driver’s window, Bellusa testified, while he flanked the rear passenger’s side of the car.

As Bhatt began a verbal exchange with Stewart, Bellusa testified that he noticed Brown was “fidgety” rather than cooperative, which he interpreted as a “red flag.” He opened the passenger door, crouched into what he described as a “catcher’s stance,” and initiated a verbal exchange with Brown. Shortly after opening the door, Bellusa said he made observations that led him to conclude that the car had been stolen.

When Pointer asked him where his hands were at that point, Bellusa stated, “They were on his lap,” according to the transcript. “Were they holding anything?” Pointer asked. “No,” Bellusa responded. “And so did you ask him to step out of the car when you're having this conversation with him?” Pointer asked. “Not at that time,” Bellusa answered. 

Bellusa said Brown then grabbed a screwdriver and stuck into the ignition of the vehicle, directing Stewart to drive. This prompted a struggle between Brown and Bellusa. According to a summary of the transcript written by the group of activists:

“Bellusa lunged into the car, grabbing [Brown] from behind as Brown was leaned over toward the ignition. …Bellusa tried to hold Brown, and then grabbed him, pulling Brown’s shirt and ripping it. Bhatt, leaning in through the driver’s window, hit Brown with his flashlight. … Brown had not yet made any aggressive move toward anyone, according to Bellusa’s description of events.”

A struggle ensued, and Bellusa testified that at one point Brown bit Bellusa’s wrist, prompting Bellusa to pull his hand away and use his “hammer fist” to strike him. Brown then grabbed the screwdriver from the car’s ignition, and “I believe that the backside of the screwdriver [was what] he used at that point to strike me in the chest,” Bellusa testified.

“As the struggle ensued and neither fighter gave in,” activists wrote, “[Brown] turned the screwdriver around and tried to make contact with Bellusa.”

According to Bellusa’s sworn testimony, “I was afraid that I was going to get stabbed in the throat clear as day.” He told his partner to shoot Brown: “I just screamed shoot him, shoot him,” he testified.

The Against Hired Guns summary describes what happened next. "As Bellusa pulled himself out of the car, two shots were quickly fired through the driver’s open window ... by Bhatt before his gun jammed. Raheim Brown, Jr. had two bullets lodged in his body. It took Sergeant Bhatt five to ten seconds to clear the chamber of his gun, during which time he said loudly: 'Fuck! Fuck!' By this time, Bellusa was out of the car and at a safe distance, he said in his deposition. When asked whether he thought Brown was still a risk after the first two shots, Bellusa replied plainly: 'No,' and said that by this point, he had his own gun out. When asked why he didn’t pull his trigger, he replied: 'Just like I said my statement with OPD, I didn't see a threat.'

‘Tell me … about the gun’ 

Bellusa explained in his deposition that he’d noticed a gun sitting in the side pocket of the vehicle during the incident, but did not alert Bhatt that the gun was there until after the shooting had occurred. When Pointer asked, “And prior to you screaming ‘shoot him, shoot him’ you hadn’t said anything related to the gun?” Bellusa responded: “No.”

Shortly after the shooting, Bellusa testified he had an interaction with Sarna, then-OUSD chief, and Smith, the OUSD superintendent. According to details included in the deposition, this conversation took place at Oakland Police Department (OPD) headquarters, after Bhatt and Bellusa had been separated, prior to any formal interview with OPD regarding the shooting.

According to Bellusa’s testimony, Smith questioned him directly. “He said specifically ‘John, tell me where the gun was. Tell me everything you can remember about the gun and what it looked like.’”

Penetrating the Thin Blue Line

An introductory statement from Against Hired Guns notes that Bellusa “will likely be considered a ‘good’ cop” for publicly airing these allegations and making an unusual break from the code of silence that typically binds police departments.

Yet the activists aren’t willing to let the sergeant off the hook so easily. Asked why they took steps to preempt release of this information, Brooks, the spokesperson for Against Hired Guns, told the Guardian, “We thought that it was important so that the debate could be framed as part of the larger context of police and violence in Oakland, as opposed to this cop has now done something good, which makes him a good cop. … He was still present the night Raheim was murdered.”

Against Hired Guns wrote in an analysis included in press materials, "It has now been over two years since Raheim’s family lost him to the violence of policing.  They have relentlessly searched for justice and still do not know exactly what happened to him. At the very least, Bellusa or any of the people or agencies he spoke with, could have explained the context of Raheim’s killing to his family members, who continue to grieve and struggle with the loss of their son, father and lover." 

The activists’ summary frames the issue in this way: “Sergeant Bellusa has now penetrated the ‘thin blue line’ that shields corrupt, abusive, violent police officers and departments. We are releasing this information as part of … a series that places the statements of Bellusa’s testimony in the larger overall context of policing in our society [and] the ‘thin blue line’ that protects officers from any consequences.”

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