By Henry K. Lee
The San Francisco Chronicle
SAN FRANCISCO — The accidental shooting of BART's head of detectives by a fellow officer has fueled critics who not only question the training and experience within the transit agency's independent police force, but wonder why it exists at all.
BART Police Chief Kenton Rainey says his 200 sworn officers, who handle everything from fare evasion to car burglary to homicide, are best equipped to patrol a unique jurisdiction -- 44 train stations on 104 miles of track, linking 26 cities in four counties.
But the Jan. 21 death of Sgt. Tom "Tommy" Smith during a probation search of a robbery suspect's apartment in Dublin -- the sixth officer-involved shooting death in BART's 40-year history -- has critics again pushing for changes. Some are calling for BART officers to be either disbanded or disarmed.
"I don't understand why BART police have guns. I don't understand why BART has a police force," said Cat Brooks, co-chairwoman of the Onyx Organizing Committee, an Oakland grassroots organization. "If there's something about safety of riders, unarmed security guards would be sufficient."
Cephus Johnson, whose nephew Oscar Grant was fatally shot in the back in 2009 by a BART police officer who was later convicted of involuntary manslaughter, said the agency "doesn't need firearms to actually do their jobs. They're not trained or even able to handle a real critical threatening incident without either killing one of their own or killing the alleged, so-called assailant."
BART officials like Rainey, who took command in 2010, see a different story outside of the high-profile mistakes. They see a force that has reformed itself since the Grant killing and that is adept at keeping train riders safe.
Police don't work unarmed
As for getting rid of the guns, they say that proposal misunderstands the nature of the job and of law enforcement in general. Police officers do not work unarmed, and non-sworn security guards don't have the power to arrest people.
Over the past three years, Rainey said, officers confiscated 75 guns and arrested nearly 4,000 people on suspicion of committing crimes, ranging from assault to bank robbery to homicide. On Sunday, transit officers at the El Cerrito del Norte BART Station arrested a couple wanted by Napa police in connection with the killing of a 3-year-old girl.
Robert Rayburn, a member of BART's Board of Directors, said he would prefer seeing more unarmed community service officers serve as "the eyes on the train and our parking lots."
But he said armed BART officers are a necessity because "we live in a society where the public does need protection." He added, "We have an exemplary force, and (Smith's death) is a tragic incident, but we just can't say, 'Oh, we need to just dismantle everything.' "
In its infancy, BART officials considered having local police and sheriff's deputies patrol transit property. It's a common approach in the Bay Area, where San Francisco police patrol the Muni transit system, San Mateo County sheriff's deputies handle SamTrans and Caltrain incidents, and Alameda County sheriff's deputies are responsible for crimes aboard AC Transit.
The police chiefs and sheriffs balked at taking on the BART system, though, saying that would lead to jurisdictional disputes and inconsistent levels of service. BART police became an autonomous department in 1972.
Some members of the public, though, don't realize that BART officers -- many of whom have previous experience in other law enforcement agencies -- have the same powers and responsibilities as their counterparts in other agencies, as set out by the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training.
Transit officers typically get additional training to maneuver along tracks and the perilous "third rail," and to deal with station evacuations, said Deputy Chief Mark Olson of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Department.
Chief Paul MacMillan of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority said, "It's more cost-effective that they have a force dedicated to the issues surrounding the transit system, as opposed to asking a force to come in -- and paying for a force -- that isn't necessarily dedicated strictly to a transit system. It has other concerns for their city and town."
MacMillan said he believed that some members of the public "don't fully understand the role and the responsibility of the transit police officer, and they don't fully comprehend their training, which is equal to or better than a city or town police officer."
SWAT team debated
But critics have long derided the BART force, saying it is insular and does not attract top-notch officers or offer them the training, experience or oversight to excel in life-or-death situations.
BART detectives did just 18 probation searches last year. In 2010, a BART auditor questioned whether the agency should dissolve its SWAT team because it was so rarely deployed -- instead contracting with local police SWAT teams.
Yet, auditors noted in a report, having a SWAT team "available across all the respective jurisdictions with a counterterrorism focus also has value. In a post-9/11 society, transit systems which have always been a high-value community asset, have a greater degree of vulnerability."
The criticism of BART police largely stems from a few high-profile controversies. The killing of Grant by then-Officer Johannes Mehserle -- who testified that he had accidentally shot the unarmed young man on an Oakland train platform while intending to subdue him with a Taser -- devastated the force's reputation.
There were more protests after Officer James Crowell shot and killed a 45-year-old homeless man, Charles Hill, in 2001 at the Civic Center Station in San Francisco as Hill was about to throw a knife at the officer. Crowell, who later left BART to become an FBI agent, was cleared of wrongdoing, but Rainey acknowledged that the officer had not received crisis-intervention training.
Before the friendly-fire shooting in Dublin, though, BART seemed to be emerging from its toughest times. Seven weeks before Sgt. Smith was shot by Detective Michael Maes, an independent auditor praised the department, saying it was making good progress in overhauling a force that had been saddled with outdated policies, lax oversight and poor officer training.
But the shooting has raised significant new questions. Sources have told The Chronicle, for instance, that Smith's shooting wasn't captured by body cameras issued to all BART officers up to the rank of sergeant, because three detectives in the apartment weren't wearing the devices and two uniformed officers didn't activate theirs.
Rainey defended the decision to send the BART detectives and officers into the apartment, rather than calling on his agency's SWAT team. After the shooting, he instituted a new policy mandating that all searches that require BART police officers to enter homes require written approval by a deputy chief.
More changes may be coming. Rainey asked the U.S. Department of Justice to help BART make sure it had proper procedures for conducting searches, for using force against suspects and documenting those incidents, and for deploying body cameras.
Rainey also repeated a statement he has made before to agency auditors and the public: "Although we have come a long way in transforming our agency's culture," he said, "we still have a long way to go."
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Copyright 2014 the San Francisco Chronicle