Shooting to kill

It almost went unnoticed in the mainstream media. After all, it was just a homeless African-American at the Civic Center Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Station, shot to death by a BART police officer less than a minute after he stepped off a train.[1] The New York Times carried a damning story thirteen days later observing that BART had implemented a fraction of an independent auditor’s recommendations following the Oscar Grant shooting on New Year’s Day, 2009.[2]

BART has not released the names of the two officers who confronted Mr. [Charles] Hill. But one of the officers was not carrying a Taser, officials said. Neither officer (one is a six-year veteran, the other has been on the force for 18 months) had received crisis-intervention training.

Asked if the officers were adequately prepared for the confrontation, Chief Rainey said, “Absolutely.” But critics said Mr. Hill’s death was a direct result of the agency’s slowness in making changes after the 2009 shooting.

“There’s been a two-year struggle to reform BART,” said Anne Weills, an Oakland lawyer who represents victims of police brutality. “They’ve made no effort to open themselves up to the public, to hire and screen people or to train people to adequately deal with these situations.”[3]

It seems the BART police have a problem. The Times story continues,

BART officers have shot and killed six people since the agency was founded in 1972; three of the shootings occurred during the past three years. The police force for Atlanta’s transit system, which employs 321 officers, has had two in the last three years; the New York Police Department’s transit bureau, with 2,400 officers, has not had a fatal officer-involved shooting in at least 10 years.[4]

A search on suggests that the San Francisco Chronicle had no coverage of the shooting itself, but apparently people noticed. The paper ran a story on a July 11 protest of the shooting in which, apparently, a transit agency police “spokesman declared that next time, there will be ‘zero tolerance'” for protesters who disrupt operations.[5] But even that story ran two days after the fact.

That next time came Thursday evening, when BART shut down cellular service inside the paid areas of some stations in order to avert another protest, infuriating civil rights activists.[6]

[BART Police] Chief [Kenton] Rainey said that just 10 percent of the force has received the special crisis-intervention training because the weeklong course takes officers off the job. He said officers now receive 40 hours of training each year, more than three times what is required by the state.

Ms. [Lynette] Sweet, the BART board member, said she believes the police department is slowly changing for the better.

“It’s not moving as fast as I’d like to see, but the chief has to deal with a lot of different factors,” Ms. Sweet said. “I know he’s moving as fast as he can.”

BART police applicants are subject to the same testing and standards as other state law enforcement agencies and are paid comparable wages. But BART is not considered a prime destination for officers looking for an exciting law enforcement career. In law enforcement circles, BART officers are sometimes derided as “glorified mall cops” and security guards.[7]

In the Oscar Grant shooting, on New Year’s Day, 2009, Officer Johannes Mehserle fatally shot Grant in the back. Grant was face down on the platform. Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and released after serving eleven months of a two-year sentence.[8]

Driving through Oakland recently, I found this graffiti on San Pablo Avenue (figure 1; for more information on this image, see my research journal postings here and here):

Kill Cops Not Neighbors
Fig. 1: "Kill Cops Not Neighbors"

Police are supposed to protect the public from gangs, but this message suggests, as CSU East Bay Professor Robert Terrell has alleged in class, that there are indeed entire neighborhoods where they are more feared than those gangs. One might think the police ought to be a little more understanding that people might find these shootings upsetting.

BART’s police chief, Kenton Rainey, expressed indignation at criticism that the officers should have used a Taser or talked to Mr. Hill, who, according to social workers, most likely suffered from mental illness.

“We’ve taken a lot of steps to put a lot of tools in their tool kit to prevent these situations,” Chief Rainey said. “The notion that you have to be stabbed, beaten or shot before defending yourself is false.”[9]

If BART cops stopped slaughtering younger men, there would be no reason for BART to cut cell phone services #muBARTek
Fig. 2: "If BART cops stopped slaughtering younger men, there would be no reason for BART to cut cell phone services #muBARTek"

But instead, the authorities chose to suppress a protest.

BART police, he said, had been tracking the online activities of activist group No Justice, No BART. A recent blog post, [BART Deputy Chief Benson H.] Fairow says, “made it clear the protesters were going to take it up a notch, and engage in illegal and possibly dangerous activities.” Therefore, a “joint decision” was made to shut off BART’s cell service. . . .

“Ultimately, I’m the one that implemented it,” said Fairow. “It was certainly run through through channels. A lot of thought went into this.”[10]

Eva Galperin, for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, responded,

Was pulling the plug on people’s phones a quick, on-the-spot decision, or part of a protest-response plan vetted by BART’s lawyers? Who decided that blocking all cellphone calls at these BART stations was the right response to news that there might be a protest? Were the carriers ever in the loop about this plan or action? Who decided that the news of this planned protest justified the shutdown? How do we know this isn’t going to happen again?

Indeed, BART said today that it had instituted the following rules, including:

No person shall conduct or participate in assemblies or demonstrations or engage in other expressive activities in the paid areas of BART stations, including BART cars and trains and BART station platforms.

What does that mean? We can’t talk?

One thing is clear, whether it’s BART or the cell phone carriers that were responsible for the shut-off, cutting off cell phone service in response to a planned protest is a shameful attack on free speech. BART officials are showing themselves to be of a mind with the former president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, who ordered the shutdown of cell phone service in Tahrir Square in response to peaceful, democratic protests earlier this year. Free speech advocates have called out British Prime Minister David Cameron for considering new, broad censorship powers over social networks and mobile communication in the UK, and we are appalled to see measures that go beyond anything Cameron has proposed being used here in the United States.[11]

There’s this funny part of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that says something about protecting “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Authorities don’t just get to shut down protests before they even happen. Authorities don’t just get to shut down people’s communications on pure speculation. And they don’t get to do this just because people are in the paid area of a BART station.

According to [David] Cruise, the VP for the Northern California branch of APCO (the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials – International), a professional organization dedicated to the enhancement of public safety communications, “No agency has the ability to decide who can communicate and who can’t. The FCC’s rules are really clear on that.”

“The California Dept of Corrections doesn’t have he ability to restrict cell phone signals for prisoners, so I don’t see how BART can for its passengers.” . . .

Regardless of who made the final switch flip, [Kevin] Bankston [a Senior Staff Attorney of the Electronic Frontier Foundation] is troubled by the First Amendment implications of that move. According to BART’s statement, the cell phone shutdown was initiated because “organizers planning to disrupt BART service on August 11, 2011 stated they would use mobile devices to coordinate their disruptive activities and communicate about the location and number of BART Police.”

Bankston says that this specificity is exactly what should concern people.

“That it was targeted specifically at blocking one type of speech” is an issue, he says. “In lawyer-speak, it’s not content neutral.”[12]

But this is the War On Terror. Even if President Barack Obama doesn’t want to call it that anymore.

In this video [released by BART], we do not see Hill. We do, however, see a police officer step off a train. At around the 53-second mark he unholsters his weapon and, not five seconds later, fires it. An object — one of Hill’s two knives, according to BART spokesman Jim Allison — whisks through the periphery of the frame.

Witnesses to the shooting said Hill was not running or lunging toward the officers. No footage to verify that exists, according to Allison.[13]

So we shoot to kill mentally ill homeless people.

(Figure 2: Tweet by Kevin Gosztola.[14])

  1. [1]Joe Eskenazi, “Charles Hill BART Shooting Video,” SF Weekly, July 21, 2011,
  2. [2]Zusha Elinson and Shoshana Walter, “Latest BART Shooting Prompts New Discussion of Reforms,” New York Times, July 16, 2011,
  3. [3]Elinson and Walter, “Latest BART Shooting Prompts New Discussion of Reforms.”
  4. [4]Elinson and Walter, “Latest BART Shooting Prompts New Discussion of Reforms.”
  5. [5]Vivian Ho, “BART: Next time, ‘zero tolerance’ for disruptions,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 13, 2011,
  6. [6]Eve Batey, “BART Defends Decision To Cut Off Cell Service After Civil Rights, FCC Concerns Raised,” San Francisco Appeal,; Melissa Bell, “BART San Francisco cut cell services to avert protest,” Washington Post, August 12, 2011,; Eva Galperin, “BART Pulls a Mubarak in San Francisco,” Electronic Frontier Foundation, August 12, 2011,; Patrik Jonsson, “To defuse ‘flash’ protest, BART cuts riders’ cell service. Is that legal?” Christian Science Monitor, August 12, 2011,
  7. [7]Elinson and Walter, “Latest BART Shooting Prompts New Discussion of Reforms.”
  8. [8]Erin Allday, “Rally in Oakland over Johannes Mehserle’s release,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 13, 2011,; Ali Winston, “Mehserle released after 11 months in LA county jail – now what?” KALW News, June 13, 2011, (The latter story incorrectly states the date of the Grant shooting as having been in 2010.)
  9. [9]Elinson and Walter, “Latest BART Shooting Prompts New Discussion of Reforms.”
  10. [10]Batey, “BART Defends Decision To Cut Off Cell Service After Civil Rights, FCC Concerns Raised.”
  11. [11]Galperin, “BART Pulls a Mubarak in San Francisco.”
  12. [12]Batey, “BART Defends Decision To Cut Off Cell Service After Civil Rights, FCC Concerns Raised.”
  13. [13]Eskenazi, “Charles Hill BART Shooting Video.”
  14. [14]Kevin Gosztola, Tweet, August 12, 2011,!/kgosztola/status/102210619096301569

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