The Bay Area Rapid Transit’s reckoning with internal racism played out in real-time on Thursday as the BART Board of Directors made its first steps toward shrinking the role of its police department by shifting $2 million away from its officers. And, in the midst of that debate, one director defended the reputation of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general, before tepidly walking the comments back. 

Following a 7-2 vote, the nine-member board approved its $2.42 billion budget for the fiscal year 2021 that included moving $2 million earmarked for the enforcement of pandemic safety measures by police officers toward 10 unarmed ambassadors and one “community outreach specialist.” 

The resolution also included a commitment that the transit agency initiates a months-long “rigorous” stakeholder process that would guide a reduction of the BART police department’s role in the public safety of the trans-county transit system.

But before the directors approved the budget, Director John McPartland, who represents some of the southern East Bay, said, “Robert E. Lee was an exemplary general” who “ended up becoming a general [who was] simply doing his job — and he’s being villainized.”

The statement, apropos of nothing, was an odd moment. It followed McPartland’s general support for Black Lives Matter, policing reforms, and the shrinking role of the police department. Why he decided to expound on Lee is unclear — but he went on.

“I don’t care about the statue — I do care about the person,” he said, referring to Lee, the Confederate general and slave owner. “And the point here is that if we continued to tear down monuments in the South, what we are doing is we are attacking the families and the belief system of conservatives of this nation.” 

Director Bevan Dufty, who represents portions of San Francisco, including stations in the Mission District, later gave McPartland an opportunity to retract his comments, saying that he knew McPartland and “loved” him as an individual and essentially pleaded with McPartland to reverse himself. 

“Racism exists at BART and exists in many places in BART,” Dufty said to McPartland. “And so, you know, I love you a lot. And I would just be grateful if you could just take a moment and let’s walk back — because I don’t think this is the time to think about statues or any of those things.”

McPartland, explaining that he hasn’t had good sleep recently, acknowledged that he “went off the rails” in his remarks on Lee but then launched into another tangent about how “we need more Oprahs,” as in Oprah Winfrey, and how racial “colorblindness” is not an adequate worldview in the current moment. He finally concluded: “I represented myself badly.” 

“And God bless you for being willing to say that, John,” Dufty said. 

Earlier this month, Bart Director Deborah Allen denied that BART police had “murdered” people, a supposition that received swift backlash from fellow directors and the public.  

Allen voted against the proposed budget and the proposal to reduce and rethink the role of BART’s 178 officer police force. She then left the meeting and missed a presentation by BART Police Chief Ed Alvarez on police reform. 

The $2 million shifted away from the police department does not subtract from the police department’s existing budget, as $2 million was an additional allocation for enforcement of pandemic safety measures.

But the move signaled a willingness on behalf of the agency’s board and staff to fundamentally change its approach toward law enforcement. In addition to funding unarmed ambassadors, a portion of the $2 million will be spent on anti-racism training for police officers. BART Board President Lateefah Simon and General Manager Bob Powers announced action last Friday. 

It appeared to be only the beginning. Dufty added a clause to the budget resolution that has BART commit “to undertake a rigorous stakeholder process on new approaches that emphasize responding to homelessness, behavioral health and substance use without relying on armed police.” 

BART will develop recommendations for staffing and funding services that do not require police officers and will be presented in October, according to the amendment. 

Only directors Liz Ames and Deborah Allen voted against it. 

Powers and Chief Alvarez committed to additional reforms. Firstly, Powers said he committed to expanding the capacity of the Office of the Independent Police Auditor, which reviews BART misconduct complaints and works with the Police Citizen Review Board to make disciplinary recommendations. 

Alvarez also committed to training officers on a new “requirement for restraint” under a new law AB 392, which allows police officers in California to lonely use deadly force “when necessary in defense of human life.” 

“BART is committed to continuous improvement,” Alvarez said. He said that 71 percent of his 178 officers have received crisis intervention training. 

The changes also come as the BART Police Citizen Review Board urged the agency to rethink the role of police, asking it to reconsider fare evasion enforcement and to examine why, in 2018, 60 percent of use-of-force incidents were directed at African Americans, while Black riders comprised only 10 percent of BART’s ridership that year. 

Simon, the board president, thanked Alvarez for his initial commitment. “I deeply agree that there’s always room for innovation,” she said. “And I think we all agree that … there is no room for racists to come to play cowboy in our department.” 

Much of Thursday’s conversation was overshadowed by the police killing of Oscar Grant at Oakland’s Fruitvale Station in 2009, when Officer Johannes Mehserle shot Grant as he was lying prone on the ground. 

Wanda Johnson, Grant’s mother, applauded the agency’s steps at pushing for change. “It really lets me know that Oscar’s death was not in vain,” she said. 

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