07/08/2011 09:12 pm ET | Updated Sep 07, 2011

New Shooting, Same Question: Should Transit Cops Have Guns?

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By: Charlie Foster

"He was definitely a Taser candidate."

That's the opinion of Myleen Hollero who witnessed transit police shoot and kill a man last weekend on the platform of a BART station in downtown San Francisco. In an interview with The Bay Citizen, Hollero described the victim as just a "drunk hippie" who was hobbling toward two cops before one of them shot him.

Hollero said that in the moments after the cops fired their shots, a crowd formed on the platform. One woman screamed at the two cops, calling them "f***ing pigs." Then she heard someone in the crowd invoke the name Oscar Grant.

I mean, wouldn't you?

BART police said the dead man, identified as 45-year-old Charles Hill, was "an aggressive suspect who was holding a bottle and a knife" and that officers are trained not to use their Tasers "in a life-threatening situation or a situation of eminent danger." And whether Hill presented eminent danger, harmless drunkeness or something in between will likely become clearer after BART releases video surveillance of the shooting. But what is already clear is that Hill's death will be linked to another fatal shooting that happened two and half years ago on a BART platform.

On Jan. 1, 2009, BART cop Johannes Mehserle killed an unarmed passenger, Oscar Grant, during an arrest at an Oakland station. Video taken by other passengers show Grant lying face-down on the platform with his hands behind him when Mehserle shot him point-blank in the back. In court, Mehserle claimed that he had mistaken his gun for a Taser. The jury gave him involuntary manslaughter and he was released last month after serving 11 months in prison.

Grant's shooting generated a much longer and sweeping deliberation in the Bay Area and around the state about the weapons BART police officers carry on the job. Youth Radio reported on the debate throughout the trial and I wrote about it for The Huffington Post. Here are some of the opinions we heard:

"The whole case raises the question of why BART cops even carry guns," former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown wrote last summer in his column in the Chronicle. Guns, he argued, don't fit the job description for police whose jurisdiction revolves around trains and their stations. "It's not like they are real police officers out on patrol. They are transit cops."

As certified peace officers, BART police do in fact wield the same authority as their counterparts who work the streets of Oakland, Los Angeles and every other California municipality. But officers at the various police agencies don't all wield the same equipment, and those varied arsenals can include nightsticks, pepper spray, Tasers, pistols and shotguns.

Critics of armed BART officers say they are about as likely to face violent crimes as mall cops. It's a claim even Lynette Sweet on BART's Board of Directors concedes.

"Our big problem right now is at Dublin-Pleasanton garage where somebody is stealing wheels off cars and putting the cars up on crates -- I mean, that's our big crime right now," Sweet told Youth Radio last July. She also said that BART police have a bad record of using deadly force. Of the agency's two other fatal shootings by officers, one involved an unarmed 19-year-old, shot in the back while running away, and the other happened when an officer gunned down a mentally ill man who had grabbed his nightstick.

But Sweet disagreed that BART police should lose their guns.

"In a post-9/11 world, we want to have some means to defend ourselves if need be," she said. Instead, she said, they should be relieved of their Tasers to avoid confusing them with their guns. "I know that sounds silly because guns are deadly, but more thought goes into pulling a gun than a Taser," said Sweet.

Many police say the debate is not about choosing weapons, but rather how much officers are trained to use them. While all police in the state receive the same basic, police academy training, including firing handguns, law enforcement agencies have varying levels of on-the-job training. Oakland Police Department, for instance, provides officers much more continuous gun training than BART cops receive.

In a brief asking for a lowest possible sentence from the Los Angeles Superior Court judge, Mehserle's defense lawyer cited that the former officer was not trained well by BART.

At Napa Valley College Police Academy, where Mehserle graduated in 2006, he is now used as an example of what happens when an officer's skills get rusty.

"Especially when we go down to the firing range and we're practicing our shooting and drawing drills," said Brent Hardy, a 24-year-old cadet. "They say, 'Muscle memory, muscle memory -- know what your gun feels like without looking at it.'"

Hardy said the academy teaches how to use pepper spray, but not Tasers.

"It's my personal belief that he wasn't training enough," said Hardy. "He simply grabbed the wrong weapon. I understand why that happened, but if he was training more outside of his work, on the weekends or whatever, he might not have made that mistake."

Related posts:

  1. Witness To The Shooting Of Oscar Grant Talks About That Night
  2. BART To Pay Oscar Grant's Mother $1.3 Million Settlement
  3. Former BART Officer Released From Prison
  4. Guns have no place on college campuses
  5. Chicago's Guns, and Roses From Concrete