"I know the pain. We're talking about a police force that is not accountable to anybody."
- Cornelius Hall
On July 17, 2001, the family of Bruce Edward Seward gathered for a news conference where they denounced the BART police. The obviously mentally ill Seward had been shot to death outside the Hayward BART station after Seward had grabbed the officer's nightstick.
Sitting in the news conference, ignored by almost everyone, was an older gentleman. His name was Cornelius Hall, and he had his own reasons to be there.
Everyone who's seen the videos of the shooting of Oscar Grant by a BART police officer is rightly outraged. It was a shooting done in execution style.
17 years ago a different BART officer executed a young black man and the lessons of that killing should not be forgotten today.
When I saw KTVU's excellent report Saturday night about the BART police officer shooting an unarmed man, all I could think was: I've been here before.
In 1992, Officer Fred Carbtree, a 15-year veteran of the BART police force, shot and killed an unarmed kid named Jerrold Hall in the parking lot of the Hayward station. That was way before cell phones and ubiquitous video; there were no pictures of the shooting and few witnesses would come forward. BART made a monumental effort to cover it up; I spent an entire month working seven days a week to break through that brick wall. In the end, I got the story: Crabtree, who was white, had heard a report of an armed robbery on the train, saw Hall, who was black, leaving the station and called him over. Hall, who had no weapon, argued with the cop and told him he'd done nothing, then turned and started to walk away. Crabtree racked his shotgun, fired a warning shot over Hall's head, then fired again, killing him.
There is no police agency in the United States that allows its officers to fire warning shots. There is no police agency that authorizes an officer to shoot an unarmed suspect who is fleeing the scene.
Jerrold Hall was 19-years old at the time. He was a skinny kid, while Crabtree was 200 pounds and had a police dog at his side. Hall was with his friend, John Henry Owens, at the time of the shooting. There was no evidence that either of them were guilty of a crime.
What happened next was even worse.
Following this, Owens was apprehended and charged with murder, although it was his friend who had been killed! He was thrown in jail and a prohibitively high bail was set. The charge was later changed to felony robbery and, finally, on 25 January, after widespread popular protest, bail was reduced enough to allow his friends and supporters to raise the money to get him released.
At first the BART police claimed that Hall was shot in his chest, rather than the back of the head. The BART police internal investigation cleared Crabtree of all wrong-doing and called the shooting "justified".
Gradually, painfully, the true information leaked out.
Hall's father sued BART, and after years of litigation, he got what he called a "small settlement". However, Cornelius Hall didn't get the most important thing that he asked for - a civilian oversight board.
The structure of the BART police force is a recipe for disaster. BART's general manager, (who is not an elected official and has no expertise in law enforcement) hires the BART police chief, who then runs a force with some 200 armed officers. There is no police commission, no police review board, not even a committee of the elected BART board designated to handle complaints against and issues with the BART police.
The BART board holds no regular hearings on police activity or conduct. There is no public forum where the chief is held to account. There is no procedure for complaints against BART officers to be heard and adjudicated by anyone except the BART police.
There is, in other words, no civilian oversight or accountability. This is unacceptable.
The killing of Oscar Grant wasn't a "tragic accident". It was a preventable disaster caused by the BART Administration that has long refused to fix a dysfunctional police force structure.
One last note: Fred Crabtree hanged himself in 1996.