John Coté and Demian Bulwa, 7/5/11
A BART police officer shot and killed a man on the platform of the Civic Center Station in San Francisco late Sunday after the man used a bottle as a weapon and drew a knife, transit agency officials said.
What started as a common police call – a report of a man with an open bottle of alcohol – escalated into a fatal shooting within one minute of officers arriving, BART Police Chief Kenton Rainey said Monday.
“There’s no such thing as a routine situation,” Rainey said. “It’s very fluid.”
One of the two officers who first arrived on scene had a Taser stun gun but did not use it. When asked why not, Rainey replied: “At this point, I can’t answer that question, but a Taser is a tool. When you’re confronted with deadly force … it’s a tool an officer can choose to use.”
The man on the platform became belligerent when he first saw the officers, hurled a nearly full bottle of liquor at them, which smashed, then advanced with a knife, said Harry Stern, an attorney representing the two officers. One officer suffered a minor cut to his arm in the incident, officials said.
“This is a completely justified use of force in response to an attack,” Stern said. “It would have been foolhardy, risky and not in keeping with police training practices to use a Taser against a knife. That’s not what they’re for.”
Rainey said he was “comfortable” with how officers handled the encounter “from what I know at this point.”
BART Director Lynette Sweet was more cautious.
“That one-minute interval really stood out for me,” Sweet said. “Then I realized a lot of things can happen in a minute. I don’t want to rush to judgment on our officers.”
BART police disclosed only some details about the shooting, which was partially captured on the station’s security cameras. Rainey said he would not release the video unless required to under disclosure laws.
There are now parallel criminal investigations into the shooting, with San Francisco police conducting the lead inquiry, officials said. A San Francisco police spokesman declined to discuss the investigation Monday.
Report of alcohol
The deadly encounter began after BART police dispatch received a call from their operations communication center at 9:34 p.m. of a man in a tie-dye T-shirt with military-style fatigue pants walking around with an open bottle of alcohol, Rainey said.
Seven minutes later, BART police received an updated report that the man was a “wobbly drunk,” raising concern that he could fall onto the tracks, Rainey said.
Two officers – one a six-year veteran of the force, the other a BART officer for 18 months – arrived on the platform aboard a train at 9:45 p.m., Rainey said.
Within one minute, the man had been shot in the “front torso area,” Rainey said. He was pronounced dead about an hour later at San Francisco General Hospital, police said.
Rainey refused to disclose exactly what transpired after officers arrived, including which officer was cut in the altercation, which officer fired his weapon, or how many shots were fired. A report to BART directors, though, said three shell casings were recovered.
“There were a number of people on that platform” during the shooting, and BART investigators are hoping more witnesses will come forward, Rainey said. “We want their independent recollection.”
Both officers have been placed on routine administrative leave. Neither was identified, but the chief said he knew them both and described them as “just average, ordinary guys.”
Neither BART nor San Francisco police would identify the victim, referring questions to the San Francisco Medical Examiner’s Office, which did not return calls.
The shooting was the second to involve a BART officer since a video-recorded shooting on New Year’s Day 2009, in which Officer Johannes Mehserle shot and killed unarmed train rider Oscar Grant at Oakland’s Fruitvale Station, prompting a murder charge.
Mehserle, who shot Grant in the back after police tried to handcuff him, testified at trial that he meant to subdue Grant with a Taser and accidentally fired his gun. He was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and recently released after serving half of a two-year sentence.
Sensitive to claims that the Grant shooting had a racial element – Mehserle is white, Grant was black – BART said that the man shot at the Civic Center Station was white, and that the two officers who responded were white and Asian.
Chase near Fruitvale
Last July, BART and Oakland police officers reported shooting and killing a man who had charged officers with a knife in each hand after a chase. The officers had tried, unsuccessfully, to subdue the man with Tasers, officials said. BART officers got involved because the chase began near the Fruitvale Station.
Rainey defended his officers’ policing methods, saying improvements had been made since Grant’s shooting, including training to de-escalate confrontational situations.
“BART police officers are not overly aggressive. … They’re out there trying to keep the system safe,” Rainey said. “Anybody who thinks that officers wake up in the morning and want to be in these type of situations is just dead wrong.”