Arrest video has Calif. transit police on guard
By Terry Collins
OAKLAND, Calif. — The troubles of the San Francisco Bay area's transit police went viral again as video hit the Internet showing what some claim was another use of excessive force.
A cell phone video showing the violent arrest of a mentally ill passenger accused of being disruptive on a commuter train came less than a year after footage of an officer fatally shooting an unarmed man incited riots in the region.
The Saturday night incident has prompted claims of police brutality and sent Bay Area Rapid Transit officials scrambling to address yet another public relations nightmare.
The latest video shows an unidentified officer pulling Michael Gibson, 37, of San Leandro from a train stopped at the West Oakland station. The officer pushes Gibson toward a concrete wall with thick glass windows, causing the glass to shatter and rain onto both men.
The officer is on paid leave after sustaining a concussion and cuts that required stitches. Gibson suffered minor cuts and is in custody on suspicion of battery on a police officer, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct.
Police said Gibson had been arrested earlier in the day outside a mall for investigation of kicking an 82-year-old man on a bus. Gibson was given a misdemeanor citation for assault and battery and later released, Daly City police Sgt. David Mackriss said.
Gibson was arrested again Saturday night after BART police say they received complaints that he had been yelling racial slurs and challenging other train passengers to fight.
Lisa Gibson said her younger brother has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and didn't need to be handled so aggressively by the officer.
"He was snatched up and thrown into that thick glass window," she said Monday. "There's no way that officer was just trying to put him in handcuffs."
John Burris, a civil rights attorney representing the family of a man killed by a transit officer on New Year's Day, also criticized the officer's handling of Gibson, saying he didn't give the suspect enough time to respond to his order to get off the train.
"He just physically grabbed this person without giving him the opportunity to respond, comply or surrender," said Burris, who is also representing Gibson. "This officer responded physically instead of verbally."
But Jesse Sekhon, BART police officers union president, said Monday that the officer "used the right amount of force necessary to affect an arrest."
The video was reminiscent of cell phone recordings that captured Johannes Mehserle, a white officer, fatally shooting an unarmed black man in the back on New Year's Day.
Mehserle has pleaded not guilty to a murder charge. His lawyer, Michael Rains, has said his client had intended to pull his stun gun on 22-year-old Oscar Grant and accidentally pulled his pistol instead.
The death led to violent protests in the community.
BART spokesman Linton Johnson said agency officials had learned lessons from the Jan. 1 shooting.
"They realize the value of getting out all of the facts that are releasable," Johnson said. "We're releasing as much information as we can that will not jeopardize this case."
After video surfaced of Gibson's arrest, transit officials quickly called a news conference on Sunday to assure transparency to the public that an investigation was under way. On Monday, BART Police Cmdr. Daniel Hartwig said that investigators are interviewing at least 12 witnesses who saw the incident. Transit officials late Monday released 911 calls that described Gibson as "yelling" and being "angry."
BART Board Member Lynette Sweet said Monday that the incident was the first use-of-force case since the agency mandated after Grant's death that all such incidents receive close scrutiny.
"This incident will get thoroughly investigated," Sweet said. "I don't know if the public will believe it."
Hartwig said Gibson was carrying alcohol in a bag and appeared to be under the influence on the train. Hartwig said concerned passengers had asked Gibson to get off the train.
A smattering of cheers could be heard on the video as the officer pulled Gibson from the passenger car.
It's too early to tell what happened next, Hartwig said.
"That's why we need those facts," he said. "We cannot assume."