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BART Shooting Puts Spotlight on Slow Pace of Reform

 
Crisis training, Tasers might have prevented the killing of Charles Hill

After a white BART police officer shot and killed an unarmed black man shortly after New Year’s 2009, the transit agency agreed to 127 policy changes recommended by an independent auditor. They included arming officers with Tasers and providing crisis-intervention training for the BART police force.

Eighteen months after the auditor issued its final report, BART has fulfilled only a fraction of those recommendations. By last month, barely a quarter of all officers possessed Tasers, even though the agency had purchased enough for each one. Just 10 percent had received training in how to defuse potentially violent situations involving the mentally ill.

On July 3, a BART officer shot and killed Charles Hill, a homeless man, at the Civic Center station in San Francisco. Transit police said Mr. Hill, appearing inebriated, was armed with a bottle and two knives and acted aggressively when two officers confronted him. After a minute-long confrontation, one of the officers shot Mr. Hill.

“I never wanted to be in this position again where I questioned our police officers,” Lynette Sweet, a BART board member, said in an interview. “But I am.”

BART’s police chief, Kenton Rainey, expressed indignation at criticism that the officers should have used a Taser or talked to Mr. Hill, who, according to social workers, most likely suffered from mental illness.

“We’ve taken a lot of steps to put a lot of tools in their tool kit to prevent these situations,” Chief Rainey said. “The notion that you have to be stabbed, beaten or shot before defending yourself is false.”

But in the wake of Mr. Hill’s death, the BART police department is once again facing disapproval, similar to what it endured after Johannes Mehserle shot Oscar Grant III in the back at the Fruitvale station in Oakland in 2009. That case touched off riots and looting last year after Mr. Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. Mr. Mehserle was released from jail last month after serving 11 months of a two-year sentence.

BART has not released the names of the two officers who confronted Mr. Hill. But one of the officers was not carrying a Taser, officials said. Neither officer (one is a six-year veteran, the other has been on the force for 18 months) had received crisis-intervention training.

Asked if the officers were adequately prepared for the confrontation, Chief Rainey said, “Absolutely.” But critics said Mr. Hill’s death was a direct result of the agency’s slowness in making changes after the 2009 shooting.

“There’s been a two-year struggle to reform BART,” said Anne Weills, an Oakland lawyer who represents victims of police brutality. “They’ve made no effort to open themselves up to the public, to hire and screen people or to train people to adequately deal with these situations.”

BART officers have shot and killed six people since the agency was founded in 1972; three of the shootings occurred during the past three years. The police force for Atlanta’s transit system, which employs 321 officers, has had two in the last three years; the New York Police Department’s transit bureau, with 2,400 officers, has not had a fatal officer-involved shooting in at least 10 years.

The BART police force is composed of 206 officers who patrol the stations and trains that accommodate 350,000 commuters each day. After the Grant shooting, BART hired a new police chief, Mr. Rainey. In an effort to give the police more oversight, the agency appointed an independent police auditor and a citizens review board, which held its first meeting nine days after Mr. Hill was killed.

 

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