Like every other police department in the Bay Area, the BART Police Department is facing calls for fundamental change — and it may well happen soon.
On Monday, the BART Police Citizen Review Board, a civilian-led police oversight committee formed after a BART police officer shot dead Oscar Grant at Fruitvale Station in 2009, urged the BART Board of Directors to rethink the role of the transit system’s police force.
Among the oversight body’s proposed changes was no longer deploying police to respond to calls such as fare evasion, homeless issues, and minor infractions such as eating and drinking on the platform. The citizen review board is also raising longstanding issues of bias and use-of-force.
“I am highly receptive to the calls that we’ve heard nationally, locally today to limit the scope of policing duties,” said David Rizk, the chair of the review board. “I think we need to do it thoughtfully — but we need to do so urgently.”
Rizk, without accusing specific officers, called the policing system “a racist institution in a racist society.” He said he loses sleep over the numerous interactions BART police officers have with young people for evading fares. Oftentimes, he said, an officer will stop a young person of color, sometimes a minor, and ask for his or her ticket. If the youth tries to walk away or move past the officer, the officer will grab the kid or “bring him down.”
“That’s a scenario that keeps me up at night,” Rizk said. “And it’s a scenario that killed George Floyd. He died over a $20 … counterfeit bill.”
Though only a fraction the size of the San Francisco Police Department — with 178 sworn officers to San Francisco’s some 2,300 — the BART Police Department has struggled with use-of-force, biased policing, and police shootings. In January 2018, a BART police officer shot and killed Sahleem Tindle without warning at the West Oakland Station as Tindle was allegedly struggling with another man over a handgun. A federal jury this March ordered BART to pay Tindle’s family $6 million.
Last November, BART police handcuffed and cited a black man who was eating an Egg McMuffin at the Pleasant Hill Station.
And the transit agency’s police department is still reckoning with the death of Grant, who was shot in the back by Officer Johannes Mehserle at Fruitvale Station in 2009, as Grant was lying prone on the ground.
A decade later, in 2018, 60 percent of BART police use-of-force is used on African Americans. According to the transit agency’s ridership data, only 10 percent are African American.
“These meetings must continue,” said Wanda Johnson, Grant’s mother, at Monday night’s meeting during public comment. “This has to change. We have to change the narrative by holding officers accountable.”
But any changes to the police department role must be approved by the BART Board of Directors. Many showed a willingness to adopt them. BART Director Janice Li signaled her support for the list of changes brought forward by Rizk, urging the review board to be “diligent and engaged” in the effort.
“There is a movement and a groundswell of people calling for the defunding and the abolition of police right now and have been for decades,” Li said. “To ignore that groundswell of support … is to be willfully ignorant.”
BART Directors Rebecca Saltzman, Robert Raburn and Liz Ames also expressed their willingness for change at the meeting.
BART Police Chief Ed Alvarez sat and listened through an hour-long public comment session during which time many callers demanded the defunding of the transit system’s police department. He said he was also open to changes, though he supported no specific proposal.
“We have a lot of things that have to be discussed,” he said. “Right now, that discussion is being had.”
Pete Longmire, who sits on the citizen review board with Rizk, served as an officer at the Vallejo and the Pittsburg police departments in the Bay Area. As a black man, he said, it was “painful” to have to sit down with his grandchildren and talk to them about “how not to get shot by law enforcement.”
“Me going on 64 years old, when I get in my car and I drive and there’s a law enforcement officer behind me, I shouldn’t be concerned — I shouldn’t be afraid,” he said. “But yet, I feel like I am.”
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