Officer in BART shooting abruptly resigns
Demian Bulwa,Henry K. Lee, Chronicle Staff Writers
Thursday, January 8, 2009
(01-07) 19:14 PST OAKLAND -- The BART police officer who shot an unarmed man to death on a station platform early on New Year's Day quit the force Wednesday, avoiding an interview with police internal affairs investigators trying to get to the bottom of an incident that has prompted broad outrage.
Officer Johannes Mehserle, 27, was supposed to make a statement Wednesday about why he shot 22-year-old Oscar Grant as the supermarket worker lay face-down at the Fruitvale Station in Oakland, BART said.
Video recordings made by at least two BART passengers and shown repeatedly on TV news programs have prompted speculation that Mehserle fired without provocation or by accident after Grant and several friends were detained around 2 a.m. in the aftermath of a fight on a train.
Mehserle, however, did not show up for the scheduled interview at 11 a.m. - the same time the funeral for Grant began in his hometown of Hayward. Instead, the officer's attorney and the president of BART's police union appeared and handed over a short resignation letter, BART spokesman Linton Johnson said.
"We were prepared to compel him to talk, but he resigned," Johnson said. "We're going to continue the investigation, with or without him. ... There are many investigations that go on without the key person."
The resignation prompted cheers and applause when it was announced at an afternoon rally at the Fruitvale Station, where several hundred protesters called for the officer to be arrested and charged.
The protest was peaceful in the daytime but turned violent after dark as groups of people wandered through downtown streets, smashing storefronts and cars, including a police car, and setting some cars ablaze. Police officers in riot gear fired tear gas to break up the crowds, and BART temporarily shut down the Fruitvale, Lake Merritt and 12th Street stations.
Mehserle's resignation was effective immediately. Christopher Miller, an attorney for the officer, declined to say what Mehserle's explanation was for shooting Grant or why he had quit. He said Mehserle's defense would continue to be paid for by a statewide fund for police officers.
Mehserle's resignation means he does not have to answer questions about the shooting from BART internal affairs investigators. He has previously declined to talk to separate investigators from BART and the district attorney's office, who will decide whether he should be charged with a crime, officials said.
Alameda County District Attorney Tom Orloff said he plans to move quickly toward a decision on possible charges. Orloff met Wednesday with Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums' chief of staff, several elected officials and other community leaders who arrived at his Oakland office demanding information about the probe.
"These things normally take weeks rather than days, but I am trying to expedite this and get it resolved as quickly as we can," Orloff said.
BART had come under fire from John Burris, the attorney for Grant's family, for not having forced Mehserle to talk with internal affairs investigators since the shooting. Unlike in criminal investigations - in which a suspect has the constitutional right not to talk to police - officers involved in on-the-job shootings must talk to inspectors as part of administrative inquiries or risk being fired.
"I'm not surprised," Burris said of Mehserle's departure. "It should have happened long ago. It's not the end, of course, for the family. They would prefer that he be prosecuted and sent to jail."
Burris has filed a $25 million claim against BART on behalf of Grant's mother and 4-year-old daughter, the likely precursor to a lawsuit. In the claim, Burris said Mehserle "mercilessly fired his weapon" at Grant, who he said posed no threat to the officer or any of his colleagues on the Fruitvale Station platform.
Grant was unarmed when he was shot in the back; the bullet apparently went through him and ricocheted off the concrete platform, entering his torso. It was the ricochet wound that caused Grant's death, the Alameda County coroner's office said Wednesday.
BART's Johnson said Mehserle's attorney postponed a meeting between the officer and internal affairs investigators that had been set for Tuesday and wanted to reschedule it for next week. Instead, BART told Mehserle to show up Wednesday, Johnson said. He would not say where the interview was to have taken place.
BART, Mehserle and the officer's lawyer have all been silent about why Mehserle opened fire. But a source familiar with the investigation said BART is looking into whether Mehserle mistook his service weapon for a Taser stun gun, among many other possibilities.
For the first time, BART police Chief Gary Gee said Wednesday that Mehserle had been armed with a Taser. The agency has been using the devices for only a few weeks, and Gee said officers are prohibited from wearing them near their gun to avoid confusion.
Grant's death has attracted attention well beyond the Bay Area, driven in part by the fact that the shooting was filmed by at least two cell phone video cameras. Footage has been widely aired on television stations.
An official of the human rights group Amnesty International USA, Dalia Hashad, said Wednesday before Mehserle resigned that BART's delay in interviewing the officer "hints at the callousness to the worth of human life to a public that is all too familiar with racial profiling, police brutality and cover-ups."
Protesters who gathered at the Fruitvale Station on Wednesday, while cheering Mehserle's resignation, had nothing good to say about him.
"That's cowardice, if you are going to resign rather than talk," said Jemar "J. Smallz" Washington, 23, of Oakland.
Kelsi Arceneaux, 32, of Richmond said of the officer, "I'm sure he's suffering as well. But people's perception of him would be better if we could at least see that he's remorseful. Right now, we don't know anything."