The Guardian broke the story last week about an Oakland school police officer, Sgt. Jonathan Bellusa, who came forward as a “whistleblower” in sworn testimony. The day after a group of Oakland-based police-accountability activists leaked an uncertified draft of the officer’s deposition to the media, NBC Bay Area aired an interview with Bellusa, who was involved in the January 2011 fatal shooting of a 20-year-old African American man, Raheim Brown.
Bellusa, who is now on leave from employment, alleges that there was a cover-up in the investigation of the shooting incident by the Oakland School Police Department, which operates independently from the Oakland Police Department as a division of the school district. Shortly after posting the story, the Guardian received a call back from attorney Adante Pointer, who conducted Bellusa’s deposition. Pointer said he didn’t know how the activist group, Against Hired Guns, got a copy of the document but he did point out that all witnesses get a copy of their deposition transcripts.
“I’ve taken a number of depositions over the course of my career, but this is the first time I’ve ever had a police officer admit that their employer was putting pressure on them to give testimony in a particular way,” said Pointer, who works for the Law Offices of John Burris, which is representing Brown’s family in a civil suit against the school police department. “It’s very eye-opening,” he added, particularly if Bellusa’s allegations ring true and “public funds and public resources are being used to cover up this death.”
But Pointer added that some of the things Bellusa stated about the facts of the shooting did not add up with the stories given by Sgt. Barhin Bhatt, who fired the weapon, or witness Tamisha Stewart, Brown’s friend who was seated in a vehicle next to him when he was shot. Bellusa “held firm to this idea that he had been stabbed three to four times with this screwdriver,” Pointer said, referencing a part in the deposition when Bellusa testified he had been hit with the butt end of a screwdriver and feared he would be stabbed in the throat.
But that doesn’t jive with the account of Stewart, who stated in her sworn testimony that the screwdriver stayed in the car ignition during the whole encounter, Pointer told the Guardian. Stewart was held in jail following the shooting for several weeks, and during that time she discussed what had happened with family and friends in telephone conversations, Pointer told the Guardian. What Stewart did not know was that her phone calls, placed from a phone provided by the jail, were being surreptitiously recorded. Pointer said his firm had been provided with tapes of the calls.
In those recorded conversations, “She was candid about everything else,” according to Pointer. “And she said she never saw Raheim try to stab [Bellusa].” Bhatt, meanwhile, told Pointer in his own deposition that he started firing because he saw Brown make a move toward the gear shifter, Pointer said, which also doesn’t add up with Bellusa’s account.
All of which goes to show that, whistleblower cop or no, questions continue to surround the fatal shooting of Brown.