Friday, July 9, 2010

Free Johannes Mehserle

I. A Memory
In the first years my husband and I were married, we went to a family barbecue--my family's barbecue. My father-in-law was a small-town/rural family doctor, who also was the medical director at the local hospital, and the chief medical officer for the local small-town retirement home. My husband was in his first year of medical school. Previous to that, he had worked in many mental health clinics and hospitals.

I warned my husband that my dad would probably pigeon-hole him somewhere down the line. "My dad has a lot of definite opinions," I warned. "He frequently likes to yell about them when he gets going."
"Okay," my husband said, calm as always. "Thanks for the warning."

True to form, my father leaned over my husband (both of them the same height, over six feet--it was done by body language) on the back porch for hours.

"What did you guys talk about?" I asked, on the ride home.
"Your dad has never been a doctor, he never had a dad that was a doctor, and he's never worked in the hospital industry. He was in sales, right? Did he ever sell medical products?"
"No. Housewares."
"Well, he told me all about the medical industry, how it was conducted and organized, and what its likely future was."
I nodded my head. "Yup, that sounds about right."

Sometimes I think the public shares this quality of my Dad's, especially when it comes to police work: two minutes of video, and they're freaking experts. I am not an expert either, but I have spent more than two minutes on it. So I'm going to give it a go.

II. The Videos.
Here is a short one. It makes us feel sick, of course it does. No decent person wants to see another person killed. So you'll have to watch it more than once if you want to see what happens. And even then, you can't see everything. All of the video records are incomplete witnesses.

Most of the videos have a lot of coverage of the ceiling. They all record the casual feeling and also a gotcha attitude in the crowd--both laughing but also recording, heckling. We civilians who access YouTube watched these with little or no prior knowledge of the terrain, the procedures, or any idea of what it's like to be stuck in a crowd that automatically hates you, surrounds you, and may bully forward at any moment. Many of us don't know how to handle weapons or the adrenaline that accumulates in such a situation. It's not the same as getting mobbed leaving a stadium after a baseball game.

Oscar Grant was resisting arrest in an enclosed space with limited exits and a huge crowd. He reached for a pocket. A full search of his person had not yet occurred, so it was more than possible he had a weapon. Officer Mehserle wanted to Tase him so that they could follow safe procedures and get control of a disintegrating situation. If Mr. Grant had pulled a gun, there is no telling how much more blood there would have been. Police killed, but also innocent bystanders. All of whom were screaming their support to Mr. Grant. They were not helping Mr. Grant, and Mr. Grant was not helping himself.

You can also see how upset the police officers are. How unprepared for the outcome of a gunshot. It was an accident. Compare and contrast it to Video # 1 in the footnotes, where successive attempts to kill (this time a police officer) mean the violence drags out, more and more and more.

But many of us felt free to judge without walking that mile in the shoes, or even, Lord help us, thinking it through. Would you choose to kill someone in that arena? I think not, unless you had a death wish for yourself and all your colleagues. Officer Mehserle had no such intention. It truly was an accident brought on by the conflict at hand.

I read that the prosecutors noted that the weight of a Taser is different than the weight of a gun, and Officer Mehserle should have known as he pulled it. I don't think the weight in his hand was anywhere near top of the list of things to consider when Mr. Grant might be pulling a gun out of an unsearched pocket. He also wasn't holding it very long.

III. A Quote.
From the sidebar of the blog: The Johnny Law Chronicles, a quote from Otto Bismarck:
"People who love sausage and people who believe in justice should never watch either of them being made."

I don't believe that. I just know that it's hard to watch the videos where crime is committed and apprehensions are made. And that's in an armchair, with a cup of coffee. I don't have to live it, smell it, taste it. I don't have to face the gun or wash off the lice or the vomit or the sweat.

Every day, police officers face the unknown from a routine traffic stop (Video #1 below) to the fall of a skyscraper in New York City. They get run over by people who want to resist capture or questioning. They get mauled by the neighbors of someone who stops them for a traffic ticket (Video #3). They got shot in their agency's parking lot or in their parents' front yard, at subway exits, when they're talking on their cell phones, or reviewing procedures with a new officer in their police car. They get shot in coffee shops as they try to catch up work.

Therefore, they have procedures. Procedures alone will not save them, but it minimizes their risk somewhat. If Oscar Grant had followed procedures, he would be alive today.

IV. The Verdict.
So I am not all the way up on the law. At first I thought that the verdict of involuntary manslaughter was a good sign: not murder one. Not murder two. Then I read that the sentencing guidelines might add an extra ten years to the two to four for involuntary manslaughter. Mr. Mehserle shouldn't even go in for two. Not two days, two months, or two years.

The truth is, this was a regrettable accident. Police officers have a risk of accident like everyone else. Mr. Grant was resisting, and he was reaching for a pocket.

There should have been a not guilty verdict for any charge.

Furthermore, it should never have gone to court at all. There should have been an agency-driven, administrative hearing, as exhaustive as hell and conducted by perhaps a non-involved agency.

V. Cowardice.
There are so many cowards in this account, that I will make a list.
If I've missed any, just write on in.

1. The onlookers, for not acknowledging their part in driving this situation to the brink.
2. The family of Oscar Grant, for not acknowledging their part in Mr. Grant's regrettable choices during his life.
3. The armchair pundits who trade in outrage and make rules for a profession they have no experience in, and who do not seek to learn.
4. The city officials who deemed it necessary to change procedure in the face of contention they did not avoid anyway.
5. The city attorneys, who washed their hands and left their own best partners (the police) to hang in the wind while they garnered publicity and votes.
6. Law enforcement officials, high in the BART agency, who did not speak up about ordinary procedures that they have for shooting situations.
7. The community leaders who enable demonstrations that sock all the responsibility on one party, and who,
  b. allow violent elements to take advantage of their group, knowing they will show up; and
   c. yet disclaim responsibility for that unofficial alliance, and
   d. fail to see that incendiary language adds to the possibility of violence.
8. So-called moderates who invoke or continue to emphasize racial distinctions, such as in the jury composition, without mentioning any other quality of the jury because they are too lazy or afraid to look;
9. News accounts that emphasize race above any other distinction or action of any other party, because they are afraid to say anything else.

Mr. Mehserle had to resign from BART law enforcement in order to capture proper legal counsel and defend himself. His reputation is trashed, he faces up to 15 years in prison. His sentencing hearing is on August 6th.

If any of you have any standing with the Almighty whatsoever, pray that Johannes Mehserle is sentenced with time served. Because he is in huge danger otherwise, for something that was an honest mistake, involuntary, brought about by pressured events. He was brave enough to be in harm's way. A bunch of cowards have put him where he is today. They all forced Johannes Mehserle under the magnifying glass so that they did not have to look at themselves--or face scrutiny by others.

VI. Final Note.
Perhaps I am like my father, blathering on past my expertise. If I have something wrong here about law, police procedure, or the trial, somebody write in. I wrote two letters to police officers I sort of know, reaching out for information. Then I realized: they are too besieged, too stoic, and too disappointed to write me back. So I just went ahead on.

And though I am angry on behalf of Johannes Mehserle, and think Mr. Grant's parents didn't help him enough, I realize that's also armchair talk. Perhaps the family of Oscar Grant won't believe this, but I am sorry for their loss. It can not be easy. It is perhaps natural to look for someone to blame.

Johannes Mehserle apologized, and of course that is not enough to assuage the grief. But Johannes Mehserle did not want to kill your son. Allowing him to be a cause, and then the cause of a riot, is dangerous to the other sons still living, of all colors, races, creeds, and financial conditions. It sacrifices another life today, and it sends countless others down a bad road.

This was hard to write.

References, besides those above, are below the jump, including videos mentioned above.

BART Officer charged, the LA Times blog
A "moderate" pundit with no basis to speak.
Officer Smith on the Oakland riots.
The Philosophical Cop with an accurate prediction.
The San Francisco Chronicle on the verdict.
Motorcop on the charges in California state law. An important read.
Motorcop with Mehserle's written apology

Footnote 1: Video of Law Enforcement Officer Shot at Routine Traffic Stop.

Footnote 2: Oakland's mayor suggest "we take a look at our community" but he defines it as police taking a look at their policies.

Video # 3: Assault of Police officer in a neighborhood. H/T Things Worth Believing in.


Momma Fargo said...

Ann T.,

This was a very deep, emotional topic for you to write. Thank you for sharing it. As a police officer, I agree we face many situations that put us in conflict, danger, and calls that require split second decisions. This case is a sad one. Society places police above the normal standard, and unfortunately for Mehserle he now faces criminal charges. Homicide statutes don't always involve intent. Although Mehserle did not intend to kill Grant, it happened in his authority. I'm sure the guilt and emotional distress will take a toll on Mehserle. I feel sorry for him as well. Mostly because it could be any cop that makes a drastic mistake which changes his life forever. It's something we can't change. The law applies to all. Cops included. Hopefully he has a good lawyer and the courts take mercy upon him. A very sad case indeed. Although I feel jail would do no good for Mehserle, the laws have to be applied for anyone. The last thing I like to see is cops behind bars. Especially for all they go through. And I agree with you...shame on the public for heckling officers during calls. I think you are correct that Mehserle has suffered a lot already, and has more in the future. I'm sure he was a good cop and never intended this to happen. An emotional conflict for all of us to handle. Very sad.

Ann T. said...

Dear Momma Fargo,
Thank you for taking the time to read all of this long post. And to comment.

If I am reading you right, you think that he should have indeed gone through the court system--or at least, that it is not extraordinary. I am not as sure, but also not as versed in the procedures of police agencies.

Thank you and all officers who accept this higher responsibility, including for drastic mistakes, in order to keep us safe.

I appreciate you answering this! And it was hard to write, but again, I do not have to live the conflict as so many of you do every day.

Perhaps my small risk and tiny anxiety will teach me more about the larger risks you take and anxiety you feel every day.

In the meantime I will pray for mercy for Mr. Mehserle.

Ann T.

sparkcheck said...

I very much agree with you about the crowd, how they also had a hand in the entire scenario--adding to the overall confusion and stress level.

In my opinion, the verdict was fair. And despite claims otherwise (by the looting opportunists), Mehserle will have to live with his mistake for the rest of his life.

Ann T. said...

Dear Spark Check,
Thank you for reading this long post and commenting on such a hard subject.

I am glad to get two responses that seem to agree somewhat, that this is not outsized in proportion.

I am sure Mr. Mehserle would have had eternal regret, even without the court process.

Thank you for all that you do, and the stakes that you all accept in your profession.

Very truly yours,
Ann T.

Christopher said...

I tend to agree with you Ann T, that the place for this to be handled was outside of the court system.

True, not all crimes require intent. Some require either recklesness or neglect. It would be hard to argue recklesness- he was in a chaotic situation, attempting to perform his official duties. No, no action that he took was reckless. So then we need to look at neglect, which it appears the prosecuting attorneys argued. I understand their argument for neglect, and I understand the jury's decision. However I believe both occured out of misinformation and the failure to understand the internal workings of a dynamic situation.

I simply don't believe it should have gone to court. If a civilian, pulling into a parking space, accidently hit the gas instead of the brake and drove into a restaurant, I don't see homicide charges being filed. Neglectful doesn't always equal crminal. The end should not be used to judge the means.

Bob G. said...

This is some very well thought out and comprehensive commentary.

I also find the scene tragic, and you cite those guilty as well, if not BETTER than any or all media sources.

One thing I have come to detest in any situation that involves law-enforcement is the plethora of onlookers seeking their "fifteen minutes of fame" via the Internet.

Conversely, when police arrive at a scene of some homicide (for example), and the usual number of onlookers are milling about (all, also with cell phones) there doesn't seem to be ANYONE that saw ANYTHING...amazing.

It's like a double-standard with these people.

If some action directly involves the police, then by all means get THEM under the watchful eye(s) of the masses and look for mistakes, but otherwise don't bother.

But then again, I wonder how many of these people would even know who Reginald Denny Was...or Daniel Faulkner. I'm just sayin'.

With a society always "on edge" for some reason and police departments having officers attacked, shot at and even killed almost every week across this nation, there WILL be times when bad things happen to good people...on BOTH sides of the shield.

We need not tolerate crime...when a crime is committed, but we CAN acknowledge an accident when it is presented to us.

But hey, that's just my opinion.

Excellent post and comments.
Got some VERY smart and savvy women here!

Ann T. said...

Dear Christopher,
Again, thank you! It was a long and perhaps repetitive post.

I am somewhat relieved to see you agree about an administrative rather than court hearing. It seemed to me that a procedure was already in place, and by not using it, the agency and city were throwing Mehserle to the wolves.

But not only that, they implied their procedure for review was inadequate, and thus opened the door for every officer-involved shooting to be tried in court. It essentially says, "We will never have your back, and you will never be reviewed by your peers in cases where peer review is the most essential."

This is a terrible state of affairs.

As with the other law enforcement officers who have written in, thank you for your service, especially in the face of situations like these and worse that constantly confront you.

I am grateful for your time today, and every day.

Ann T.

Ann T. said...

Dear Bob,
You and I are in total agreement--we need not tolerate crime, and we can use our reason to know when something is not a crime.

Also, your comment makes me think about the nature of alliances--it takes two to tango--.

I wish we could de-escalate and lower the stakes out there on the curb. I think there would be less accidental deaths and many, many less grim stories.

Thanks as always, Bob! It's nice to hear I've got some 'savvy'. Momma Fargo as more in her little finger than I do in my whole person, but I'm glad to stand in her shadow.

She's laid up today with an eye injury and I wish her the best.

Sincerely, Bob, thanks!

Slamdunk said...

I appreciate you tackling these difficult topics Ann T.--ones that you have thought long about.

I can certainly see the argument against this going into criminal court, but as a realist, it was something the public demanded and an action that an elected DA could not refuse. The politics in play trumped everything else.

I don't remember the names and dates exactly, but in the late 1970s/early 1980s, there was an accidental police shooting in a large Southern city. A rookie officer (it was like her first week on the job) and her partner (her regular trainer was not working that day) were first on the scene of a bank robbery in progress.

The partner posted the newbie watching the front door and told her to cover it--while he went around the back side. The front door opened suddenly and out comes three adults running at her.

The precise details escape me, but she fired at the people running to her and wounded two.

It turned out that these injured people were bystanders fleeing the bank--not the suspects.

She was not charged criminally, but the case obviously went into civil court. The officer's police career ended that day before it got started.

Certainly those were different times though.

Ann T. said...

Dear Slamdunk,
I do see your point. I see that voter attitude is part of how our government works. I do wish people were more informed or more thoughtful about what they expect their public servants to do.

The story at the bank robbery is another bad one for all who hear it. It seems to me that it underlines training issues, not just for the police but for the public. What a hard job we expect, yet we know almost nothing about it.

And as you say, times are far more combative now. It will be more difficult to teach people who can't see the other side.

Something to think about, surely.

Thanks for the support, the compliments, and all the great things you do. And for reading this long, serious post.

Very truly yours,
Ann T.

The Observer said...

Ann T:
It's amazing how stuff with cops gets blown all up and out of proportion. People jump in their Monday morning quarterback chairs and second guess decisions made in a split second. Recently here in KC the second guessers have been out in force about a car chase that ended with a bad crash when the bad guy decided to drive the wrong way up a divided highway and hit three cars.

I have not studied this case extensively, but it does appear as if it was an accident. The question becomes negligence rather than purposeful misconduct. The moment you make that distinction, it has a whole different handle legally. Recently here in KC, the final adjudication happened for two officers who were negligent in addressing the medical needs of a female (she did not die) they had taken into custody. That was handled by the Police Board (the two officers lost their jobs--the dash cam video was pretty damning). I do believe there is a civil suit pending. That is what should have happened with this case too--handled internally, with the potential of civil litigation if the victim's kin desires.

I do suspect this course of action was taken out of fear of riots in the streets. Johannes Mehserle was sacrificed in the name of hoping to maintain the peace. That is an outrage to me--shows a definite lack of stones on the part of the city administration. It should have never seen the courts as a criminal case.

Excellent post--I can see how it was tough to write. BTW, for another video of how tough police work can be--remember this?
The Observer

Ann T. said...

Dear The Observer,
I DO remember that video. It is another great example, thank you!

There is civil litigation pending as well.

We are in agreement over the agency review, and many other things.

Mostly what's tough is: going past the comfort zone. I don't mind a stretch, but sometimes when it's a long stretch I worry that I've missed the critical nuance that covers everything.

Thanks for writing in! We would be shouting in unison over that kitchen table of yours! All the pets would be under the bed, waiting for that loud lady to go home!

LOL! Thanks for reading and commenting. Always a good sign around here.
Ann T.

Texas Ghostrider said...

It is unfortuate in today's society that we as police officers will be hung out to dry. If a credical incident happens, the department and the government will look out for themselves and not the interest of the involved officer. Years ago, we did not have to have our own attorney's making the scenes like we do now. One day, I hope that the public and the administrations will stand up and support their law enforcement, but I don't see that happening anytime soon.

Ann T. said...

Dear TGR,
I agree with you on how unfortunate this is. I think Mr. Mehserle took one look at how it was going and knew he had to get legal representation.

There is a kind of mental scam around in the world now regarding law enforcement. They are supposed to cover more crimes and exhibit more forbearance at the same time that support gets harder to come by. I don't understand it at all.

I think it relates not just to the generations of Welfare, but the increasingly dream-like ideals of the middle class. Reality has to hit or we are lost.

I so appreciate you stopping by.
Come back anytime and be welcome.

Ann T.

Sandra said...

As police officers, we are damned if we do and damned if we don't.

Thank you for your very well thought out and articulate post about this very sad topic.

Ann T. said...

Dear Sandra,
This is exactly what I think: damned either way. This is not a sustainable condition.

I am terribly saddened for Mr. Mehserle.

I should say, your post of the two videos of the officer involved shooting contributed greatly to my understanding of what process should have been in place.

Thank you for writing in. And thank you for all that you do.

Very truly yours,
Ann T.

Jay said...

I fully realize that this is an old blog post, but I feel compelled to comment. I came to this blog after spending the last 3 hours reading story after story of police officers abusing citizens.

I started this journey to understanding when a commenter on a blog I frequent mentioned the former Texas State Trooper Arturo Perez. Like the Grant shooting, there is video evidence. Mr. Perez violently SLAMS a 22 year-old young woman into a concrete barrier on the side of the road, injuring her to the extent that she required hospitalization. One year later, he is finally being charged with misdemeanor assault or some other reduced charge. This case truly terrifies me, because I have a sister who is not much older than the young woman Perez assaulted. I no longer trust the police to serve and protect her.

The defenders of police officers, like you, often try to pass these incidents off as isolated. I would argue that you're just no paying attention. A Polish man was murdered by Canadian Mounties who repeatedly tazed him, stopped his breathing, and then inexplicably kept emergency workers from trying to revive him. All were cleared of any wrongdoing, and one has since killed again, running over a pedestrian and leaving the scene in order to hide his intoxication......

Ann T. said...

Dear Jay,
I am sorry I didn't comment on your post sooner. I hope you see that I did print it, and have added this reply.

If you spent three hours looking at videos, that's probably more than most people have done. But it's in a safe room, you don't know what happened before and you don't know what happened after. The empathy you feel you have tied to your sister-and I think your sister is lucky to have a caring brother.

I wish you could see that police officers are also someone's brother, and every day they are judged by the actions of one. they face stress after stress.

I don't know about the cases you mention. I wonder if your research would extend to reports from the commissions that study these incidents, in order to get a balanced view and even an incident report from the police side.

The world is full of atrocity stories, and some of them are true. But when they aren't, they cause a lot of misery for innocent people. They lead to witch hunts I think.

I so appreciate you writing in.
Ann T.