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Civilian review board for Bay area's rapid transit department

By Charlene Muhammad -Western Region Correspondent- | Last updated: Sep 7, 2009 - 6:52:35 AM

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( - The transit department that made national news headlines after one of its officers shot and killed an unarmed, Black passenger, and a state lawmaker are locked in a battle over civilian oversight of the unit.

The Bay Area Rapid Transit District's Board of Directors, some local clergy, and community leaders, have drafted a plan, which would create an independent, civilian review panel over the department.

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano has drafted legislation that would create an office and system for filing complaints against wayward officers.

BART approved adopting civilian oversight with a unanimous vote on August 13 and is pushing the State Legislature to adopt its proposal before its September recess. September 12th is the last day for any bill to be passed.

Specifically, BART Board Member Lynette Sweet told The Final Call, their proposal would grant an 11-member panel, comprised of an auditor and diverse civilian group, complete authority to investigate and discipline its officers. However, the final decision to mete out discipline will still actually rest with BART Police Chief Gary Gee, who will resign at the end of the year, or the new chief.

If the chief decided to adopt the panel's recommendations, the officer could appeal through the Policeman's Bill of Rights, which consists of two high-ranking officers and one civilian. They would render a final decision after hearing evidence.

BART's plan would amend the BART Act, which governs what the department can and cannot do, to have an auditor that reports directly to the board, and allow discipline by someone other than the chief of police.

Assemblyman Ammiano's proposal, AB312, would require BART to create an Office of Citizen Complaints to investigate complaints and allegations of police misconduct.

The problem with AB312, according to BART and its community partners, is that it puts the power to nominate the director of the new complaint office in the hands of the district attorneys of Alameda, Contra Costa, and San Francisco Counties.

“That can't happen. Anybody who's watched more than one episode of “Law and Order” realizes that the district attorneys and police departments work hand in hand and we can't even think of having a district attorney being the eyes and ears of the BART police force. It's not going to work. It would have to be a civilian committee, something that people will believe really works, not some sham that would be put together,” Ms. Sweet said.

Ms. Sweet said that her comments were not meant to be disrespectful, however, she believes that Assemblyman Ammiano's motives have nothing to do with justice.

Quintin Mecke, Communications Director for Assemblyman Ammiano, told The Final Call that there needs to be a broader conversation about civilian oversight and other issues recently identified in an independent investigation of BART. He said there are greater challenges facing BART and citizen oversight will not address them all.

BART solicited the Meyers Nave Law Firm to review it after former BART officer Johannes Mehserle shot an already subdued Oscar Grant, III. on a station platform on New Year's Day.

Mr. Mecke told The Final Call that one issue with BART's plan is that it would require a super majority two-thirds vote for any appeal of the general manager's or chief's decision regarding officer discipline, when they are the very people who mishandled the Grant case in the first place.

Meyers Nave recently issued its assessment of BART officers' handling of the Grant incident. They found that the officers did not follow recommended procedures on the Fruitvale platform; they failed to work as a team, reducing their effectiveness and increasing their chances of assault; and there were lapses in communication and leadership.

Chief Gee tendered his resignation after the findings.

“These are very hopeful signs and we are looking forward to the next phase of development with BART oversight … and we are pleased with Chief Gee's decision to retire,” said Student Minister Keith Muhammad of Muhammad Mosque #26B.