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BART police meet the Citizen Review Board

Courtesy of Thomas Hawk/Creative Commons

In a conference room at the BART police headquarters in downtown Oakland, a DVD plays a scenario. The screen shows a woman, and she’s really angry. She’s just been locked out of her house after finding out her husband is cheating on her.

“Goddamn it, this is my house, let me in bitch, are you cheating on me?” the woman yells “I hate you! Why are you doing this to me?”

Her aggression grows, quickly turning violent. She kicks one officer, and he falls to the ground. An officer in the DVD tells the woman to drop the shovel, but the woman continues to yell.

Using this standard police training video, a handful of members of BART’s Citizen Review Board are trying to walk in the shoes of the police officers they monitor. BART Sergeant Marlon Dixon starts the discussion.

“You’re the officer on the scene, you went through that scenario, what do you think?” she asks. No one says anything. “Speechless?”

The Board debates and agrees, for the most part, that they wouldn’t really know what to do with someone so out of control.

“What about shooting her if she continued to approach?” Dixon asks. “This is happening like this. He’s got his officer. The officer could be seriously injured. What do you think?”

Some of the Board members say they would shoot. Citizen Review Board Member Bob White isn’t so sure. After all, the board emerged from public pressure to create greater oversight on the BART police after an officer fatally shot Oscar Grant in 2009.

“Although I know she has martial art experience and I know the right answer would be shooting her, because she can use deadly force, she was unarmed, I couldn’t justify,” White says. “If he had a taser, I would use that first instead of using deadly force.”

BART police policies say that in this kind of situation, use of lethal force is legal. But Sergeant Dixon explains that there is more to it than just reading from the rule book.

“There’s a term that we use, ‘lawful, but awful.’” Dixon says. “It might be lawful per policy, per the law, but the public is going to tear into you because perception is everything.”

BART knows this first hand after two fatal officer involved shootings in the last few years. A civilian oversight board is now responsible for hearing a wide range of alleged police misconduct at their meetings every month. With the help of a new, independent police auditor they can recommend disciplinary action to the BART Board of Directors. The Citizen Review Board was created last March, but didn’t have its first meeting until after last July’s fatal officer involved shooting of Charles Hill. The Hill case has been brought up at Citizen Review Board meetings, but they’re still far from having the investigation completed.

BART Officer Trainer Caroline Perea says having these training sessions for the Citizen Review Board should help them understand this and future incidents.

“We all thought that it was very important that they understand how we train and why we train and where we get our authority,” she says.

This training is just one on a long list of recommendations from an audit report by the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement, or NOBLE. Along with civilian oversight, the 2010 report made recommendations on BART Police Department policies, tactics, hiring and investigations by comparing it to international law enforcement standards.

Community Service Officer Lauren LaPlante works in the department’s community oriented policing unit.

“Any way that we are making the community more accessible to the police department,” she says, “whether it be the civilian review board, whether it be us going out to community meetings, I think we need to be engaging in all those practices.”

Community policing encourages law enforcement to partner with residents, businesses and local groups. She says community policing in the BART Police Department started in the mid-90s. But now they’re implementing a new model called zone policing. Zone policing breaks the current BART zones into five smaller areas. LaPlante says this makes it easier for lieutenants to manage crime trends and for police officers to get to know stations.

“This is a semi-new concept,” LaPlante says. “In terms of the community policing philosophy, it’s going to bring more accountability.”

On a recent Thursday morning, Officer Rick Martinez took up his zone assignment. That would be Zone 1, which includes the Rockridge and MacArthur BART stations.

Martinez has been with the agency for six years. “In my time, we’ve gone from an agency that essentially had no community relations,” he says. “There wasn’t that transparency.”

Before, Martinez says, people didn’t understand BART police’s mission. “We come into our station and take a look at who’s around and people stick out that are hanging out here because our stations are designed for a specific reason, we’re here to move people,” he says.

BART officers spend a lot of time walking around and being part of the community, Martinez says. They’re also there to help. As he walks, a man approaches Martinez and asks for directions to the DMV. Martinez points him in the right direction.

“So that’s another hat, directions,” he says. “I don’t like that hat. It’s really hard to know where everything is,” he laughs. “And just because you’re a cop, doesn’t mean you know where everything is.”

There are also the tougher situations, like a fight between a station agent and an unhappy patron. The man had wanted to exit to smoke a cigarette and then re-enter the paid area. The station agent, he says, said “no” in a disrespectful way and now he’s angry and cussing a bit. “Okay look, we’re in a public place and you can’t be cussing,” Martinez tells him. Martinez talks to him quietly in between listening to his problem.

“It’s just an argument, essentially,” Martinez says afterwards. “People are allowed to argue and vent their frustration. There’s not a crime for being mad, essentially.”

If the encounter was to turn violent and Martinez handled it differently, it may have ended up on the Citizen Review Board’s desk. Martinez says he’s okay with this kind of oversight.

“I don’t mind it,” he says. “It’s part of the job. It’s another check and balance that goes with police enforcement. Our agency hasn’t had it and to fall in line with every other agency in the modern time, it’s expected.”

The BART Citizen Review Board, along with the new community policing strategies, is still in development. But with recent incidents of questionable tactics still fresh in riders’ minds, their work is going to be under heavy scrutiny.


Nicole Jones joined KALW's Crosscurrents team in 2010 as a reporter covering criminal justice and public safety. Jones is an alum of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and her work has appeared in The Chicago Tribune, Time's online edition and The Bay Citizen.