Will the former BART cop who shot Oscar Grant spend time behind bars?
Since the fatal shooting of Oscar Grant III on New Year's Day in 2009, a photograph of the 22-year-old African American man from Hayward has become iconic. The picture shows Grant's smiling face, and the black ski cap and a hooded sweatshirt he was wearing the day it was taken.
It has been copied onto posters and displayed like wallpaper in downtown Oakland cafes and along city blocks, manipulated with different hues and accents to produce scores of flyers, banners, hip-hop album jackets, T-shirts, and even masks. An expansive mural in Oakland displays Grant's image on a larger-than-life scale, framed with roses.
The ubiquitous pictures of Grant, the victim of a shooting by police, are a constant reminder that his life was taken suddenly when BART cop Johannes Mehserle shot him in the back on the Fruitvale train platform. At the time, Grant was unarmed and physically restrained, having been arrested following reports of a fight.
Cell phone camera footage of the shooting went viral, and the case drew national attention. The defense argued that it was all a tragic accident, saying Mehserle had mistakenly drawn his firearm when he meant to draw his Taser.
Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and his sentencing is expected Nov. 5. With all the attention surrounding the case, this final determination has taken on the proportions of a moment of truth.
Mehserle could be sent to prison for as long as 14 years, or merely be placed on probation. For many Grant supporters, it's a question of whether the justice system will incarcerate a police officer for killing a young person of color, after so many other youths have been slain in police shootings that never went to trial. For Mehserle's supporters, the outcome will signify something else entirely.
Mehserle, a white Napa native in his late 20s who resigned from BART after the shooting, was tried on a murder charge. But a jury in Los Angeles (where the trial was moved because of the publicity here) found him guilty of involuntary manslaughter on July 8. Protesters, decrying the verdict as too lenient, converged in downtown Oakland for a street rally directly afterward that later gave way to bursts of rioting and looting.
The grassroots community leaders who urged supporters into the streets aren't the only people now mobilizing around the sentencing. In the months following the verdict, the law enforcement community rallied in support of Mehserle, whose conviction for on-duty police conduct stood out as a rarity.
The former cop's supporters have set up websites, hosted vigils, and arranged media interviews for Mehserle and his allies. A website called Justice4Johannes.com decries his conviction, denouncing the justice system as biased against police. "Do not let our officers fall victim to a spineless system," the website urges, "who would rather protect criminals than protect our law enforcement officers who daily put their lives on the line for you!"
As the date of the sentencing approaches, each side has demonstrated that they are as active as ever. When the Giants played in AT&T Park in October, Mehserle's father, Todd, made an appearance in McCovey Cove on a stately sailboat with "Free Johannes Mehserle" banners ruffling on its tall masts. But a smaller wooden ketch with activist Jared Aldrich at the helm, hoisted banners that read "Justice for Oscar Grant" and, on another occasion, "Jail Killer Cops."
On Oct. 23, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10 shut down Bay Area ports, using a stop-work day to hold a rally at the Port of Oakland calling for the maximum sentence for Mehserle.
"The litany of police killings of innocent young black and Latino men has evoked a public outcry in California," Jack Heyman, a co-organizer of the rally, wrote in an article in CounterPunch. "Yet when it comes to killer cops, especially around election time, with both the Democratic and Republican parties espousing law and order, the mainstream media either expunges or whitewashes the issue."
Heyman told the Guardian that he had visited Oakland high school classes to speak about the issue and found that in some classes, every single student raised a hand when asked if they knew the name Oscar Grant. "They happen to be sensitive to the issue of police brutality," he noted. "A number of them had had problems with police."
On Oct. 26, opposing briefs on the sentencing were filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court. Defense Attorney Michael Rains submitted a 126-page memo urging the judge to drop the gun-enhancement charge and place Mehserle on probation, which would keep him out of prison. Meanwhile, prosecutors with the Alameda County District Attorney filed a 20-page memo indicating that Mehserle should be sent to prison, but stopped short of advocating for the maximum sentence.
Rains' motion goes into great detail, quoting from letters sent to the court in Mehserle's defense, in which the former transit officer is said to be "a gentle giant." It even goes so far as to suggest that Mehserle's infant son (born New Year's Day, 2009) could suffer psychological difficulties later in life if he is separated from his father.
Grant, too, was a father — his daughter, Tatiana, is six — but the prosecution's motion doesn't mention how she may be psychologically affected later in life by her loss. Grant supporters sent some 2,000 letters to the judge, according to a posting on civil rights attorney John Burris' website, but none were referenced in the briefing.
The DA argues that Mehserle intentionally shot Grant, implying that the Taser argument was a fabrication. In the moments following the shooting, the document notes, Mehserle told his fellow officer that he thought Grant was going for a gun. "If the sentence in this case is to serve any purpose whatsoever," it notes, "it must serve as punishment."
The Peace Officers Research Association of California (PORAC) covered the cost of Mehserle's defense. The 85,000-member, politically powerful police organization maintains a legal defense fund for officers facing legal troubles.
Technically, Mehserle wasn't entitled to the financial assistance. According to PORAC's website, an officer who voluntarily resigns may be ineligible for benefits, and Mehserle quit shortly after the shooting. Still, PORAC stepped up and put itself on the hook for millions in legal fees to ensure he had the best possible defense. PORAC was a driver behind the Peace Officers' Bill of Rights, which established a unique set of protections for law enforcement officers under investigation for misconduct.
PORAC president Ron Cottingham acknowledged that its decision to fund Mehserle's defense was discretionary, but declined to say more. It's possible that PORAC was interested in preventing Mehserle's trial from setting a precedent for other cases involving officers who use deadly force against unarmed suspects.
PORAC also played a role in the BART civilian oversight structure that was ultimately approved by the California Legislature. The transit agency's lack of civilian oversight became a flashpoint in the wake of the shooting, prompting Assemblymember Tom Ammiano to draft legislation that would have created an Office of Citizen Complaints (OCC) for BART patterned after the system in place in San Francisco. PORAC fought it and the effort was stymied.
"PORAC ... will actively oppose your bill as it is written," Jesse Sekhon, president of the BART Police Officers' Association, wrote in a letter to Ammiano's office. "They also said that they will have every law enforcement agency in the state oppose the bill." Ammiano's bill would have prevented police officers from serving in oversight roles and would have granted more power to the OCC.
The bill that went forward instead, Assembly Bill 1586, was crafted by BART, supported by PORAC, and introduced by Assemblymember Sandre Swanson (D-Oakland). Under this system, the oversight process begins with a police auditor selected by the BART Board of Directors, and a citizen board — which may include police officers.
According to Lynette Sweet, a member of the BART Board who spoke about the bill during a community meeting in Oakland in August 2009, PORAC opposed Ammiano's bill because it would have allowed the state to direct municipalities throughout California to create civilian-oversight offices. "PORAC doesn't want to see that happen. So we've now become the lesser of two evils for them," she said.
On Oct. 29, BART held a dedication ceremony for the new police auditor office and honored Swanson for bringing the legislation forward. The transit agency has initiated a search to fill the civilian-oversight positions. But the rifts in the community over this shooting are far from healed.
On one side, a politically powerful and financially robust police lobby is actively influencing civilian-oversight legislation and spending top dollar trying to keep Mehserle out of prison. On the other, a grassroots community movement furious about police brutality against black and Latino youth is gaining momentum.
Only Judge Robert Perry knows what his own personal interpretation of justice is, and he alone will determine if or for how long Mehserle will spend time behind bars. If he is spared from prison, the community will be outraged. If he is incarcerated, Mehserle supporters will be outraged. But regardless of the decision, Mehserle's life will go on.