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NOBLE to BART PD: "Your house is a mess"

Editor's Note: A report by the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE) to the BART (the California transit police agency involved in the New Year's Day incident) was scathing, leveling criticsm at the agency from the top — it questions the vision and wisdom of department leadership — all the way down to dust on its floors. Check out our synopsis and add your comments below.

The police department responsible patrolling one of the most-trafficked public transit systems in California is a mess. That’s the unvarnished conclusion one reaches by reading the report submitted to the BART Board of Directors by the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives. PoliceOne recently obtained an advanced draft of that report.

It was on a BART train platform in the small hours of the morning on New Year’s Day 2009 that a passenger was detained by BART officers following a fight, and was soon thereafter shot and killed. The incident was captured on cell-phone video and viewed by millions of people on the Internet.

NOBLE’s criticism of BART PD goes from the very top — it questions the vision and wisdom of BART PD leadership — all the way down to dust on its floors.

The NOBLE draft report states that the “vision, mission, major goals, and core values need to be re-established to provide the future direction for BART Police,” and that the “general orders manual needs a total revision in format, process, and content.”

NOBLE says also that the main office and some of the satellite facilities used by BART Police “are in dire need of renovation” and that the “quality of these facilities as an effective working environment serves as a disabling factor for all the employees working in them. It creates the perception that the BART administration does not value their contribution.”

Nearly five months in the making, many of NOBLE’s recommendations are not at all surprising. For instance, NOBLE suggests increased involvement of the community, such as developing a police advisory board and utilizing community surveys to assess “the quality and scope of police services.” It’s not atypical for police agencies in major metropolitan areas to have such civilian oversight — the San Francisco Bay Area has a total population of nearly 7.5 million according to the U.S. Census Bureau — and by some estimates, BART carries more than 339,000 riders every single weekday. For a sense of scale, it should be noted that BART PD has roughly 200 officers.

Also not surprisingly, NOBLE says BART PD “needs to develop and implement a comprehensive pre-service, in-service, specialized, and advanced training plan” and that the agency should acquire CALEA accreditation. “If the agency achieves accreditation and maintains accreditation every three years,” NOBLE writes, “BART administration has the assurance that its police department is maintaining the highest performance standards in the law enforcement profession.”

Remember, at the time of the New Year’s Day shooting, Officer Johannes Mehserle reportedly had only minimal training on certain less lethal weapons, and had only been issued his TASER weeks before the fatal shooting of Oscar Grant. PoliceOne Columnist Dave Smith wrote just two days after the incident that one of the possible scenarios expressed by those who had observed the video “is that the officer intended to use his TASER and mistakenly grabbed his firearm. This is altogether possible, and we have written about similar tragedies in the past.”

What is  surprising, however, is the fact that the results of an employee survey closely mirror NOBLE’s recommendations.

“NOBLE talks in the report about accreditation and reviewing and rewriting the general orders manual and all that stuff,” Street Survival Seminar Instructor Betsy Brantner Smith tells PoliceOne. “Well, when you look at the employee survey, the employees  want that.”

According to the employee survey, the “vast majority of employees believe that the organization should establish new organizational statements. Specifically, the agency should develop a new vision statement, mission statement, core values, and major goals.” Other notable results were that the majority of BART PD employees believe:

• there is a need for increased supervision and accountability
• there is a need for appropriate job-related training for personnel in: 
     - Investigative Skills
     - Current Law Changes & Effects
     - Computer/Software Use
     - Use of Force and Defensive Tactics
• the agency should develop and implement effective crime control strategies
• that better equipment is needed
• there should be improvement to the promotional process
• there is a need for a comprehensive and contemporary general orders manual

“Working with CALEA would be a good thing — this is something my own organization did years ago. One of the best ways to get a good policy manual is to go through CALEA accreditation. You’re legally covered, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, and they’re a very well-recognized organization. I think calling for a revision of the general orders, and probably doing it through CALEA, is one of the ways that management, the community, BART, and the officers can all come together, because it sounds like that’s what everybody wants,” Brantner Smith tells PoliceOne.

On use of force matters, the executive summary of the NOBLE report has an eye-opening series of statements: “The agency should incorporate the various policies which specify practices governing use of force into a single comprehensive policy to both reduce confusion and provide easy to find guidance in this critical area. The agency's members should receive annual use of deadly force training and biennial less-lethal force training. Training should include the legal justification for the use of force, with a provision for tracking and mandating attendance for those that do not attend regularly scheduled training. The removal of personnel from any position requiring a firearm should occur when they fail to attend and achieve firearms qualification, until the member satisfies the Agency qualification requirements. There also should be a provision for tracking and mandating attendance at make-up training for those that do not attend regularly scheduled training. The agency should develop a written use of force testing instrument.”

“What I didn’t like,” Brantner Smith tells PoliceOne, “was that they talk about needing additional advanced training in one section, then you go on down a little further and they talk about annual  firearms training and biennial  less lethal training. Are you kidding me? They want to put all this on these officers, and then not actually provide the training. Right up at the top of this document they say, ‘We need training. These officers need to be trained, they need to show up for training, and we need to track it,’ but then when you get right down to the nuts and bolts of it, they say, ‘Well, we’re only going to train you a little’.”

No agency wants to have a failure-to-train issue, but “if you have officers that are going once a year to the range, which is the bare minimum standard, and then you have this incident — and I know this kid had just gotten his TASER — and only twice a year you’re training with less lethal, well hell yeah you’re going to have some problems,” Brantner Smith tells PoliceOne.

The final report from NOBLE will be issued in coming weeks, after a review period in which input from the BART Board of Directors may be added. The question of how any of the final recommendations will be funded and implemented remains unanswered (and, quite frankly, unasked).

The other unanswered question not to be forgotten: what does the future hold for Johannes Mehserle? Officer Mehserle resigned a week after the New Year’s Day incident and is now charged with murder.

Meanwhile, BART Police Chief Gary Gee is presently on medical leave, and reportedly plans to retire at the end of the year, so it’s possible — even probable — that changes recommended by NOBLE and adopted by BART PD will happen under an entirely new regime.

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