BART chief refutes critics in staff bulletin
Chief Kenton Rainey suggested that a "few individuals" inside and outside the agency were undermining long-term efforts to improve BART's reputation
By Henry Lee
San Francisco Chronicle
SAN FRANCISCO — BART police critics who have questioned the department's training and oversight in the wake of the fatal shooting of a police sergeant by a fellow detective are misguided and should wait until investigations of the incident are complete, the agency's police chief said.
In a strongly worded bulletin that was sent last week to employees and obtained by The Chronicle, Chief Kenton Rainey suggested that a "few individuals" inside and outside the agency were undermining long-term efforts to improve the BART force's reputation as a "real police department."
That reputation was severely harmed by a former officer's killing of unarmed train rider Oscar Grant on Jan. 1, 2009, 1 1/2 years before Rainey's arrival.
BART's head of detectives, Sgt. Tom "Tommy" Smith, died Jan. 21 after a member of his unit, Detective Michael Maes, accidentally shot him during a probation search of a robbery suspect's apartment in Dublin. Sources have told The Chronicle that Maes momentarily mistook Smith for an armed threat.
The Chronicle has also reported that Smith had in the past asked Deputy Chief Ben Fairow to assign the department's SWAT team to take part in high-risk searches, but was rebuffed. There's no indication Smith made the same request before last month's tragedy.
In his bulletin to employees, Rainey referred to critics who he said had insinuated that Smith "lacked the knowledge, skills and abilities to safely perform building searches or a residential 'knock and talk' probation search." He said the same critics had insinuated that Fairow didn't deploy the SWAT team in situations that demanded such a move.
"My response to them and you is, 'I do not accept or agree with either of those characterizations,' " Rainey wrote.
"I have given my word to you and the Smith family (that) there will be a complete and transparent investigation of this tragedy," Rainey wrote. "The outcomes of the ongoing investigations into this tragic event are not intended to assess or deflect blame, but to determine exactly what occurred, so we can do everything in our power to prevent something like this from happening again."
One BART police veteran, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said this week that no one from within the department had blamed Smith for his own death.
"Did anyone stop to ask themselves why Tom was concerned about serving warrants?" the officer said. "Tom wasn't worried about his abilities. He was worried about his 'team.' Looks like he was right to be concerned."
While members of the SWAT team and several other BART officers had been sent to specialized training on making high-risk entries into buildings, none of the officers who went to the Dublin apartment had such training, according to sources.
Rainey has defended the decision not to send the SWAT team to search the one-bedroom apartment, noting that the robbery suspect who lived there was already arrested and behind bars.
While BART has defended its training, it is also seeking to improve it. Rainey is sending about 15 officers to train with the Alameda County sheriff's office on how to handle warrants and high-risk operations, according to a Feb. 7 order obtained by The Chronicle.
Smith's brother, Newark police Officer Patrick Smith, said in an interview Friday, "I have not heard anybody blame Tommy for anything."
He said he was reserving judgment on Rainey's handling of the situation, but also said the chief should "listen to his people."
"If things fall on deaf ears and a tragedy happens, then things have to change," he said. "People need to be held accountable for what they did or didn't do."
Copyright 2014 the San Francisco Chronicle
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