That Oscar Grant, the young man fatally shot by a police officer on a BART platform on New Years, died is a tragedy. It is unacceptable in every sense of the word, and the condolences of every rational person must be with his family.
The officer responsible, Johannes Merserle, resigned on Jan 7 and will be charged with murder – which category remains unclear. The Alameda County District Attorney, Tom Orloff, has stated that there is evidence that the killing was intentional. The family is suing BART for $25 million in a wrongful death suit. Even the attorney representing Grant’s family, John Burris, acknowledges that the officer may have believed that he was reaching for his Taser, in which case Merserle would be guilty of negligent homicide, rather than murder.
This is a regrettable incident all round; there are no winners here. Grant is dead, Merserle will do jail time, no amount of money can recompense the Grants for the loss of a loved one. However, that must not be where the investigation stops.
Something went horribly wrong on that platform. Occam’s razor suggests that the simplest explanation is the most likely; in this case, and certainly looking at Merserle’s reaction to the shot, it is most likely that the officer thought he was about to do something other than shoot the suspect with a live round. The likeliest explanation may be that he thought he was going to Taser the suspect, even though he was not wearing a Taser at the time. The Taser is worn on the other side of the belt, feels different and has bright yellow pieces on it so that it is clearly identifiable.
It’s incredibly relevant that, reportedly, BART police only started carrying the weapon in December, suggesting that the officers were not yet completely comfortable with carrying the weapon. An incident of this seriousness should mandate a full investigation of the regime surrounding the use of Tasers, and in particular the training the officers receive. That idea that Grant was struggling is absolutely true, but, it appears from the video, he was under the control of the officers – even the use of Taser in that instance would have been extreme.
If Merserle used his pistol instead of the Taser, what he may have thought he was going to use is very strong evidence that there is a systemic lapse in the adoption of the Taser by BART police somewhere – did the drills for Taser use include a visual check of the weapon system to ensure that it was the correct weapon before using it? That the drill is written down as Standard Operating Procedure is almost irrelevant; more important is whether the training was successful in ensuring that the officer, in the heat of a stressful situation, still checks the weapon system before operation – clearly that did not happen, regardless of which weapon he thought he was going to use.
It is difficult to suggest a reason why Merserle would commit murder at this time, at this place, during this incident; this was not the first of its nature he was involved in, not the first opportunity to kill someone. If he did deliberately intend to shoot Grant with a live round, then clearly the BART police recruited the wrong personality type into their force. The BART police give their officers the capability and opportunity to use lethal force, and their selection procedures must reflect that; if they intend to suggest that Merserle committed murder, then that suggests the selection system is broken.
There will either be a political whitewash that sends Merserle down the river, or a responsible reaction to this incident. That the District Attorney is already openly talking about murder charges suggests that a full-blown internal investigation will heap the blame on Merserle, as the trials of the NYPD officers who shot Sean Bell did, rather than openly accept that there may have been systemic problems, engage with those problems and resolve them.
A member of the public died needlessly. There must be an investigation that goes far beyond concluding ‘operator error’ – the BART police have accepted a risk that is unnecessary, and must now identify what that risk is, and act to close it, or at least address it properly.
Whether or not Merserle did intend to kill Grant does nothing to affect the need for the BART police to openly review their selection procedures, their basic training procedures and their Taser policies and training effectiveness. The review is worth it if only to prove that these weren’t contributory factors, and to demonstrate their professionalism in protecting the members of the public from future harm, and in protecting their own officers.