The first pre-trial hearing for Johannes Mehserle – the Ex-BART officer who shot and killed Oscar Grant on New Years Day 2009 – brought out a tapestry of emotion and activity. The Foltz Criminal Justice Center was a buzz with scores of brave protestors, media representatives, and agents of the legal system all taking part in the early morning rush. It was an amazing scene considering that the hearing itself was rather basic and bland. The biggest developments of the day included an announcement of a May 2010 start to the trial and Judge Perry’s insistence of no cameras in the courtroom. While these tidbits of legal information are indeed critical, they pale in comparison to the acknowledgment that countless legislative barriers make it nearly impossible to fairly and successfully prosecute officers like Mehserle in a court of law. This reality creates a piercing anxiety in the hearts and minds of everyone hoping for justice in this case that will not dissipate anytime soon. However, if Oscar Grant has any chance of being our generation’s Emmit Till – a martyr that inspires a movement for progressive social change – we will need to immediately identify concrete next steps to work on. A few recommendations include:
1. Repealing or Amending the California Police Bill of Rights
Passed in 1976 to supposedly protect officers against workplace harassment, this part of the state’s Constitution has become a tool used primarily to protect trigger-happy cops from getting fired. Much of the Police Bill of Rights deals with issues of due process when officers violate department rules. However, it contains several problematic clauses that not only make it difficult to fire officers, but to convict them of criminal acts. Some of these clauses include guaranteeing every officer an administrative review regardless of the severity of their actions and paying officers if they are questioned while off-duty. Moreover, as long as the Police Bill of Rights remains intact, local efforts for community-controlled policing are rendered ineffective. In order to repeal or amend the California Police Bill of Rights community leaders will need to raise millions of dollars to put forth a ballot initiative before voters. This will be a hard-fought, yet just battle to save the lives of thousands of vulnerable residents.
2. Establishing a Special Prosecutor Office to Investigate and Charge Police-Crimes
As the legal representatives of Californians, County District Attorneys have the primary responsibility to handle felony cases throughout the state. Consequently, DAs work very closely with local law enforcement. This collegial relationship creates a gapping contradiction in the legal system. DAs are very reluctant to bring charges against on-duty police officers – especially in cases of brutality and murder – out of fear of alienating the very group often responsible for their pay and job status. In Los Angeles, District Attorney Steve Cooley has consistently refused to charge on-duty officers of murder and other serious felonies. In order to change this appalling scenario, community leaders should look at creating a Special Prosecutors Office that would assume the responsibility of investigating and charging police-related crimes. This move would likely require a ballot initiative approved by voters.
3. Eliminate the Police Board of Rights in Los Angeles
One of the most peculiar police structures in California is the LAPD’s Police Board of Rights. This panel, which is comprised of 2 high ranking police officers and 1 civilian, has the power to make binding decisions in cases where a cop may be demoted or terminated. What makes the Board even more powerful is that no one, including the Police Chief, can reverse their findings. Furthermore, the Board has skillfully interpreted State law to make their process confidential. Therefore, the names of the officers involved or rationale around their findings are not released to the public. The role of the Board of Rights became resoundingly clear in the aftermath of the 2005 LAPD shooting of 13-year old Devin Brown. Despite findings by the Police Commission that the shooting was out-of-policy, the Board of Rights cleared the officers of any wrongdoing. Undoubtedly, the Board’s decision in the Brown case was impacted by their secretive nature and the pervasive presence of the “police investigating police” dynamic. For a department maintained by taxpayer dollars this situation is an abomination and an affront to the principles of freedom and representative government. Since it is written into the Los Angeles City Charter, eliminating the Police Board of Rights will require Los Angeles voters to approve the change at the ballot box. Another hard-fought battle. Another expensive campaign.
All of the above recommendations would require a lot from community leaders and residents. Well-financed law enforcement interest groups would work to prevent any of them from becoming reality. This will force activists to adopt a long-term vision and strategy, raise large sums of money, and recruit a talented network of progressive attorneys, media consultants, and of course, organizers. However, we must recognize that while marches and protests are essential tactics, they leave much to be desired in terms of deterring police officers from arbitrarily killing and abusing members of our community. The family of Oscar Grant and other victims of police brutality deserve our maximum effort. They deserve victory.