Tag Archives: Sean Bell

Police Brutality Killed Oscar Grant: Johannes Mehserle Should Have Been Guilty of Murder

By Kieran K. Meadows

Credit: Wikimedia Commons (via Flickr: NeitherFanboy)

Americans anxiously awaited a decision Thursday involving a young African American man. Some thought an entire community would erupt in riots based on the outcome. You might think I’m referring to star basketball player LeBron James choosing to “take his talents” to South Beach. I’m not.

While TV media hyped “The Decision” for hours and millions seemed more concerned about a rich guy’s job situation than they did about their own, another decision came down in a Los Angeles courtroom with far more serious implications.

I heard about the verdict and shook my head in disgust. A jury found an Oakland transit officer, Johannes Mehserle, guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the New Year’s Day 2009 shooting death of an unarmed black man, Oscar Grant III. I was relieved Mehserle was convicted at all, which is rare in fatal police shootings. In the cases of Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell, remember, officers were acquitted of all charges.

However, Mehserle was acquitted of second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter. His sentence could see him serving less jail time than a non-violent drug offender.

How could Grant’s death not be murder? Videos show Mehserle shooting Grant in the back as he lay subdued and facedown on the ground. Mehserle claimed he meant to reach for his Taser and instead grabbed his gun. As an astute reader on MotherJones.com commented: The “argument boiled down to: ‘I was attempting to abuse a suspect already in safe custody but I was too incompetent to even do that right and killed him by accident.’ ”

If the jury believed Mehserle’s testimony, then a key follow-up was ignored: Was Mehserle justified in using his Taser, let alone any weapon? The Taser has been implicated in playing a role in suspects’ deaths. And there have been cases in which a gun wasn’t even involved—see Anthony Baez. Therefore the issue is not the gun; it’s police brutality. The choice to use excessive force murdered Oscar Grant. Johannes Mehserle made that choice.

So was Mehserle justified in using a Taser? Police had been investigating reports of fighting on the train and had gathered a handful of young men thought to be involved. Accounts differ on Grant’s actions: the police say he was resisting arrest; witnesses say he was attempting to diffuse the fight. What’s obvious is just before the shooting, Grant lay prone on the platform with another officer pinning him down.

Afterwards, the usual story played out: the authorities’ “official” account characterized the suspects as thugs. But in the YouTube era, almost everyone in that BART station had a cell phone camera. Multiple videos immediately surfaced. For me, the loud pop is the most chilling moment—out of proportion to what we’re seeing. After all, officers were responding to reports of a fistfight.

If Mehserle decided to use his Taser only because he saw Grant as a threat, simply because he was young and black, then on a different night in a different place, the victim could have been LeBron James, or any black male, or anyone, period. Until we confront police brutality—by punishing officers who murder unarmed citizens—we will continue to see the same pattern of abuse, no accountability, and tragic loss of life.

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NYCLU files lawsuit seeking access to info about police shootings

The New York Civil Liberties Union sued the NYPD last week to obtain more information and facts about police shootings. The organization is seeking access to two internal police reports: one prepared immediately after a shooting of a civilian, and the other, a more detailed report completed within a few months of the incident.

The NYCLU has filed multiple Freedom of Information Law requests over the last three years—since police shot and killed an unarmed Sean Bell in Queens in November 2006—seeking annual statistical reports about shootings since 1996, as well as data on the race of the victim. The police department produced the reports, but stopped releasing information about race after the 1998 report, at about the time officers shot and killed an unarmed Amadou Diallo in the Bronx in February 1999. Nearly nine out of ten shooting victims in 1996 and 1997 were black or Latino.

Also last week, The New York Times reported that the NYPD released a report showing police officers fired their guns about 16 percent less last year than the previous year. The police report also said that 97 percent of the shooting victims in 2008 were black or Latino.

Despite the year-to-year drop in police gunfire, over the weekend, three officers fatally shot a teenager in Queens 11 times. Police said they spotted 18-year-old Dashawn Vasconcellos and two others leave a city park after hours and a chase ensued. The officers fired 14 rounds after they said Vasconcellos pointed a 9mm semiautomatic pistol at them.

Meanwhile, the NYCLU also says that the NYPD is on track to stop a record number of New Yorkers this year, according to new stop-and-frisk data. The organization says if the current pace continues, 535,000 innocent New Yorkers will have been stopped and interrogated by police by the year’s end.

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Dutch Scholar in New York Studying Communication Between Police and Communities

By Kieran K. Meadows

A Dutch communications scholar is conducting research on the way the city’s police department and its critics get their messages out in the public sphere. Based on the work she’s done so far, she believes that the two groups both feel victimized by the other, and what they say in public sometimes exacerbates the problem.

Michelle Knight, a doctoral candidate at the University of Groeningen in the Netherlands, is in New York working on her dissertation. She has already written the first part—a historical look at the police department and its critics from the 1850s to the present. Now she is specifically examining the Sean Bell shooting and its aftermath as a case study.

“People are always surprised that I am studying this,” Knight said. “I have a passion for the New York City Police Department. I have a passion for New York history.”

“And I have a passion for polarized communication,” she said.

Knight was a master’s student of American Studies on an exchange program at the University of North Carolina in 1999 when Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant, died in a hail of 41 police bullets while he stood in his home’s vestibule.

Knight didn’t understand how it was possible for something like that to happen, so she closely followed the case and the ensuing debate. She went to New York and arranged meetings with police union and community leaders, and became fascinated they held such a different reality on the events that had taken place. She eventually wrote her master’s thesis on the history of the police department, which became the first chapter of her dissertation.

In 2006, Knight was back in Holland when she heard about the police shooting of Sean Bell, who was also unarmed, and killed the night before his wedding. This time, police had fired 50 bullets. Again, she followed the aftermath online, through the indictments of the officers involved, their trial and subsequent acquittal. As methodology, she chose to examine every utterance of a stakeholder in the New York Times’ reports.

“Everybody watches the NYPD and the various claims-makers interact in the press, on the stage of the metropolis,” said Greg Donaldson, a professor of communications at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. “But nobody has really studied it in a scholarly way.”

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