Originally published on Youthradio.org, the premier source for youth generated news throughout the globe.
By: Charlie Foster
Just how long Johannes Mehserle goes to prison for fatally shooting an unarmed train passenger will likely come down to one thing: his gun. Because while the ex-transit cop's involuntary manslaughter conviction carries a sentence of as much as four years in state prison, a gun enhancement could tack on an additional ten years.
A judge will sentence Mehserle on Friday for killing 22-year-old Oscar Grant during an arrest on Jan. 1, 2009, on a station platform in Oakland. In July, after deliberating for less than seven hours, a jury decided the death was unintentional. But by adding the gun enhancement, they seemed to reject Mehserle's claim that he had mistaken his gun for a Taser.
Meanwhile, the shooting has 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.
"The whole case raises the question of why BART cops even carry guns," former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown wrote this summer in his column in the Chronicle. Guns, he argued, dont 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 in 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, 'Hey 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."
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