Several Berkeley police officers jumped on a public bus full of elementary students last week and held a gun on their after-school teacher, misidentified as a robbery suspect, while he was taking students to a basketball game.
Some parents and staff at Cragmont Elementary School have charged that the incident revealed the Berkeley Police Department’s bias against black males.
Cragmont after-school basketball coach DeAndre Swygert told the Planet that he was taking 10 students from Cragmont’s after-school basketball team for a game against Emerson Elementary School when three to four police cars surrounded their AC Transit bus and pulled it over.
“One of the kids said ‘look’ and I saw one of the officers banging on the bus window with his gun,” Swygert said. “Then six to seven officers approached the bus through the back door, put a gun by my face and told me to put my hands up. They did not handcuff me, but they made me put my hands behind my back. One of the officers grabbed me by my shirt and got me off the bus. They started searching my backpack and asked me who I was, where I was going and If I was with the kids. Then they said ‘sorry for the inconvenience’ and left.”
Berkeley police spokesperson Sgt. Mary Kusmiss told the Planet Tuesday that the police had responded to a call for help from a community member.
“Since the suspects were seen with a gun by the victim, officers, in keeping with tactics to ensure community and officer safety, will have their guns drawn,” she said.
“If there is a suggestion or report that a suspect is armed, officers are well within policy in keeping with not just their own safety but also the community’s safety. The suspect could have posed a threat to the children.”
According to Kusmiss, a UC Berkeley student was taking pictures with her digital camera on the 1100 block of Euclid when two teenagers jumped out of a maroon van and approached her. One of the teenagers pointed a semi-automatic pistol at the student and took off with her camera and some other belongings. The two boys then jumped back into the van and drove off.
Kusmiss said that after the student yelled for help a community member from the 1200 block of Oxford Street called the police.
“She heard a police department siren, then saw a maroon van quickly pull over and three 14-year-olds jump out and run east on Berryman and north on Spruce,” she said. “Officers located the van that was reported stolen from the City of Oakland. There were a few items of the student’s belongings inside, but officers did not find a gun, which led them to believe the suspect or suspects who had fled the van were still armed. Approximately eight officers did area checks and stopped a bus that was leaving the area.”
Swygert, 21, said that the officers told him that he fit the description of an African American male with dreads and a sweatshirt only after they had finished searching him.
“I understand they were doing their job, but what they did was inappropriate,” he said. “I had children with me ... Some of them started to cry. I think the police could have done a whole lot better. They singled me out because I am a young black male with dreadlocks. They stopped me for no reason. If they were looking for robbers who had hijacked a car then why did they have to stop the bus?”
In a letter to Cragmont parents, Cragmont principal Don Vu described the incident on the bus as “traumatizing for both DeAndre and the students.”
“Unfortunately, cases of mistaken identity happen way too often in our society and it is especially disturbing that this happened in front of our students,” the letter said. “DeAndre is a good young man trying to make a difference in the lives of our students by taking the time to mentor and coach them after school. We support him and appreciate the good work that he does at Cragmont.”
Sgt. Kusmiss told the Planet that the officers were responding to the victim’s description of the suspect.
“They were looking for a black male juvenile,” she said. “In this case they would not have been looking for anyone else.”
A graduate of Oakland High School, Swygert joined Cragmont through AmeriCorps two years ago.
In her letter to Cragmont after-school families last Friday, Cragmont’s after-school program director Angela Gilder called DeAndre’s encounter with the police “humiliating.”
“Yet another case of ‘mistaken identity,’ Mr. Swygert was at the mercy of the officers in a very degrading and embarrassing manner,” she said. “No apology was given to Mr. Swygert or our students. All too often this ... is a situation that occurs numerous times with many young African American males.”
Cragmont parent Kameka Goodwin said her son Alonzo, who was on the bus, was very upset by incident.
“I thought it was crazy they drew guns, and that they dragged the coach down and asked him questions,” she said. “I am shocked they would do it in the presence of children ... I have grown up in Berkeley and it’s very common for the BPD to go out of their way to do this ... They think everybody with dreads and a sweatshirt is a suspect.”
Alonzo told the Planet that he and some of his friends had put their hands up when they saw the police.
“They asked us who Mr. Swygert was,” the 10-year-old said. “We told him he was our coach and we were coming from Cragmont.”
U’Dwi Ashford, another Cragmont parent, said her son has had nightmares from the incident.
“My son told me he didn’t know what was going to happen to him or DeAndre in the bus,” she said. “I told him it was unfortunate, but that if you were a young black male you were going to get stopped at least once, if not more, in your lifetime. We’ll probably have this conversation more than once.”
Prinicipal Vu said he was trying to set up a meeting with the Berkeley Police Department to bring in counselors to meet with the students.
In an e-mail to Cragmont parents Wednesday, Vu said that counselors would be available on campus Thursday to talk to students about the incident.
According to the e-mail, Berkeley Police Officer Jerome Colbert, a former teacher and school resource officer, will meet with Swygert, students and parents today (Friday) to answer questions about the incident.