08/31/2011 06:00 pm ET | Updated Oct 31, 2011

BART Police Department: Is It Necessary?

"No justice, no peace; disband the BART Police."

That slogan has become the rallying cry for the dozens of protesters who have been gathering at the Civic Center Bay Area Rapid Transit Station every Monday to demonstrate against the beleaguered transit agency.

Protesters in San Francisco are a notoriously fractious bunch, with a variety of issues constantly competing for space at the same demonstrations -- at one point during their recent traffic-blocking march down Market Street, the crowd stopped impaling BART and started raging against the bank bailout.

Even so, the protesters largely seem to have coalesced around a single demand: the dissolution of the BART police department.

The BART police force's problems all started on January 1, 2009, when Officer Johannes Mehserle threw unarmed passenger Oscar Grant to the ground, restrained him and shot him in the back at close range. Mehserle claimed he believed he had pulled his taser and was shocked when a bullet tore though Grant's body, splattering blood all over the floor of Oakland's Fruitvale station. A jury took Merserle at his word and gave the officer a two-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter.

Grant's death was the fifth documented officer involved fatality in the department's four decade history. It was the first to be captured on video and sparked a firestorm of national media attention.

After Merserle's verdict, the BART police department faded from the headlines until transient Charles Hill was shot by BART officers at San Francisco's Civic Center Station earlier this year.

While Hill allegedly charged at officers with a knife, many still distrusted the department from the Grant shooting and were eager to vent their frustrations. On August 11, a protest was called. In an effort to stamp out that protest out before it could seriously disrupt service or endanger passenger security, BART officials turned off cell phone service in certain areas inside the system.

The protest that gave BART officials the idea to shut off cell phone service barely materialized; however, the subsequent demonstrations in response to that decision were much, much bigger. The online "hactavist" group Anonymous declared all-out war on BART, bringing the issue of its police force to the national stage.

"BART is not structurally set up in a way that makes it possible for them to be accountable -- the directors are part timers and they have no experience or ability or time or inclination to be accountable to the public for life and death decisions," said a spokesperson for No Justice No BART, an organization dedicated to the dissolution of the BART police department, who declined to provide his name.

State Assembly Member Tom Ammiano expressed a similar sentiment in an interview with the San Francisco Bay Guardian:

The transit agency still doesn't have effective police oversight. And until the BART board recognizes that it still has 200 poorly trained, poorly supervised, armed officers on the streets—and that this shooting wasn't an anomaly, it was simply the latest in a series of criminal acts by BART police officers that led to the deaths of innocent people—and until the BART Board starts treating this like the emergency that it is, the problems are going to continue.

BART created its police force in 1972, right as the system opened to the public. The agency established its own police department largely because of the organizational complexity of the transit network, which sprawls though more than 20 cities in four counties.

Transit systems maintaining their own police forces is a common practice nationwide, but in no way is it BART's only option. In the Bay Area, SamTrans is policed by the Transit Police Bureau within the San Mateo County Sheriff's Department and AC Transit contracts its security out to the Alameda and Contra Costa Sheriff's Departments. in New York City, the subway system dissolved its police force a decade ago and moved inside the New York Police Department. Other transit systems connecting The Big Apple to the rest to surrounding areas, like the Long Island Railroad and Metro North, have their own police forces.

Even though neither SamTrans nor AC Transit quite have BART's multi-county reach, there would be few if any jurisdictional problems if BART decided to get rid of its police force. With a few exceptions, such as military bases and Native American reservations, any police officer in California has the authority to enforce the law everywhere in the state. If BART wanted to contract out their security to San Francisco Police Department, Oakland Police Department or a combination of other departments, no laws would have to be changed to allow officers to make arrests in any of cities serviced by BART.

BART officials attest that the main benefit of maintaining an independent police department has to do with officers understanding the specific requirements of enforcing the law inside the system. "It's a unique environment in the underground areas. Local police departments aren't trained to how to deal with them, but BART police are," said BART Spokesperson Jim Allison. "It's a tremendously complex system to master and to expect other police departments to learn it would be imprudent."

The BART police department consists of just over 200 sworn officers. After an unidentified hacker leaked the names and addresses of approximately one third of the staff, it became public knowledge that many of the officers don't reside inside BART's service area. This revelation drew sharp criticism that by not living in the communities they police, many BART cops may not be sensitive to the needs of their ridership.

Police Officer Association President Jesse Sekhon said it doesn’t matter where officers live, since many grew up in urban environments. "The sad fact of the matter is that our guys can’t afford to live in cities like San Francisco,” Sekhon told the San Francisco Examiner. “But that doesn’t mean we’re not familiar with the people we serve."

All of BART, from the police department to its new General Manager Grace Crunican, is overseen by the organization's board of directors. Anti-BART advocates question the board's efficacy.

"The BART Board of Directors, while some of them mean well, are useless," said the No Justice No BART spokesperson. "They are deaf to concern...[they are] technically in charge of a police department and what is going on is literally their responsibility and they are flubbing it. They constantly promise 'improvements' as if they had any agency in making any of the decisions at BART [but] they don’t, the staff just does everything—the cell phone shutdown, for example, and they just rubber stamp it."

Based on recommendations from a National Order of Black Law Enforcement Executives report commissioned by the transit agency in 2009, the board of directors created an external Citizen's Review Board to oversee the police department and created an independent police auditor to investigate rider complaints against the department and allegations of police misconduct.

While suggesting a number of additional reforms, the report ultimately recommended keeping the BART police. "A transit police agency is highly beneficial because of BART’s decentralized environment and high commuter traffic in the communities it serves," it read. "A public transportation system has a high degree of vulnerability in our post-9/11 society."

Allison added, "the BART police department is integral to providing daily protection to the 350,000 weekday BART riders."

Despite official assurances that BART's police department is an essential component to keeping the system safe and efficient, it doesn't look like the crowds gathering every week at downtown stations will quiet their demands any time soon.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article inaccurately described the shooting death of Oscar Grant. Grant was shot in the back, not in the head, and he was never handcuffed.