Citizen Oversight of BART Police Stalled by Conflict Between SF Legistlators

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday August 27, 2009 - 12:51:00 PM

The fate of civilian oversight of the Bay Area Rapid Transit Police Department is being decided—for this year, at least—in a contest of wills and purpose between two San Francisco officeholders with longtime credentials in progressive politics.  

While both BART Board of Directors member Lynette Sweet and California Assemblymember Tom Ammiano feel that there will be just “one shot” to bring passage of a BART police oversight plan by the Legislature in the wake of last January’s shooting death of Hayward resident Oscar Grant by a BART police officer, they disagree on when and how it will be possible. 

Sweet is urging the California state Legislature to pass enabling legislation this year to authorize a police civilian review plan unanimously passed by the BART Board earlier this month. But Ammiano, newly selected as the chair of the Assembly Public Safety Committee, where the proposed legislation must be heard, has doubts about the BART civilian oversight plan, and wants it strengthened before bringing it to the Legislature next year. 

Legislation is needed for BART to implement its oversight plan because the BART charter—originally set up by the Legislature—does not currently allow the civilian police oversight sought by the BART Board. 

While Sweet lives in San Francisco, the District 7 BART district she represents is the only board district that crosses into all three counties served by BART: San Francisco, Alameda, and Contra Costa. 

The conflict between the two San Francisco politicians came to a head at a sometimes inflammatory Monday morning press conference called by BART at the district’s Oakland headquarters, in which several local leaders blasted Ammiano’s position on the police oversight issue. 

Rev. Daniel Buford of the influential Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland said he believed that Ammiano was “playing chicken with justice in the Bay Area and the East Bay. Here is a representative who has had no shootings by BART in his district. Here is a representative who has not consulted with the committee that created the police citizen oversight process [or with] the local representative, Sandré Swanson. It seems to me that in all this rush to craft a bill with his name on it, his name on the bill is more important than justice for Oscar Grant … His ego is more important than justice for Oscar Grant.” Buford called Ammiano’s bill a “competing quagmire of irrelevancy” and said that it was time to “quit playing ‘Father Knows Best’ with the interests of the Black community and the East Bay.” 

San Francisco NAACP president, Reverend Amos Brown, said that Ammiano, who is gay, “must not become that which he hated. He and his community have hated being mean to gays and lesbians because of their lifestyle. I am one preacher who has stood up for the rights of gays and lesbians to live out their lives and to pursue happiness in this nation and in this Bay Area. And I’m just appealing to Mr. Ammiano to remember that Black Folks deserve the same justice and respect that gay and lesbian and transgender people deserve in this nation.” Brown said that the “time is now for this measure [on BART police oversight] to be passed in our Assembly and Senate.” 

Reached by telephone following the BART press conference, Ammiano press representative Quintin Mecke said he had listened to the audio of the conference and called the comments “extremely disappointing” and “somewhat disingenuous.” He said that the controversy “speaks to the challenge we’ve had in trying to work with BART on this issue.” Mecke said that Ammiano’s office has “put no obstacles” in the way of civilian oversight of the BART Police Department. “There’s nothing we’re doing that would obstruct that process. We’re trying to move it forward.” But more important, Mecke said, Ammiano’s office is “trying to get it done right.” 

Although Sweet sought at the press conference to downplay her differences with Ammiano over the BART police oversight issue, she said that she was “shocked” to find out that Ammiano planned to re-introduce his BART police oversight legislation next year rather than trying to push it through this year. Sweet added that “we don’t have the luxury of standing up on Jan. 1, 2010 [the anniversary of the Oscar Grant shooting death on the Fruitvale BART platform], and saying that we have accomplished nothing tangible this year.” 

The Monday press conference was emceed by BART Director Carole Ward Allen, who represents the area surrounding the Fruitvale BART Station and chaired the four-member BART Police Department Review Committee that wrote the proposed police oversight measure, but it has been Sweet who has been informing community members about the stalemate with Ammiano and urging them to confront him. 

While Sweet and Ammiano have been working on parallel tracks on the BART police oversight issue since the beginning of the year, the clash was not inevitable, and it first appeared that they were working in complementary fashion. 

In mid-January, only a couple of weeks after Grant’s death, Ammiano introduced AB312, a bill that would “Create an Office of Citizen Complaints (OCC) to review and investigate allegations of misconduct filed against peace officers in the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Police Department,” according to the official legislative analysis. 

Meanwhile, the BART board was forming its four member Police Department Review Committee (with Boardmembers Tom Radulovich and Joel Keller joining Sweet and Ward Allen on the panel) to formulate its own response to the Grant shooting. Working through the review committee, the BART board eventually commissioned two independent studies on police issues, one on the Grant shooting, and a second, larger study on the entire BART Police Department. In addition, the review committee began working on the proposed citizen police oversight measure. 

Sources familiar with the police committee activities have said that Sweet was the driving force in the committee on developing the proposal. 

Both Sweet and Ammiano’s press aide, Mecke, agree that work on Ammiano’s AB312 was halted at the request of the BART board and other BART officials in order to give BART the time to draw up a specific citizen police oversight measure. The BART Board of Directors unanimously passed that proposal at its August 13. 

But the passage left little time for implementing legislation to be passed by the California Assembly this year. Only fiscal-related bills are currently being heard in committee, and consideration at this late date of any new legislation would require a supermajority of the Legislature to approve. 

Sweet says that any action must be taken by the end of this week, or the BART police bill is dead for the year. 

Sweet said this week that an alternative to introducing new legislation would be for Ammiano to pull out the contents of his already-introduced SB312 and substitute the contents of the BART board’s proposal—a common legislative practice—but Ammiano has balked at doing so. 

Mecke said that there are two provisions of the BART proposal that trouble Ammiano; one that would allow BART’s two police unions to place one member—jointly—on the proposed citizen police oversight panel, and another saying that if the BART general manager and the BART police chief disagreed with a police personnel decision by the citizen oversight panel, a two-thirds vote by both the citizen oversight panel and the BART Board of Directors would be needed to overturn that executive decision.  

Mecke said that police representatives do not belong on a civilian oversight panel, noting that “it would no longer be civilian,” and said that Ammiano did not believe that the general manager and the police chief should be in the loop of police discipline in a citizen police oversight model. 

Questioned about the BART police review proposal at Monday’s press conference, Sweet noted that the proposal received unanimous support from the BART board, hinting that support for the police review proposal might collapse if substantial changes were made to the existing measure. 

In his telephone interview, Mecke also said that Ammiano wants to make sure that there is a “full public vetting” of the legislation before it is passed, something he says would not be possible if the bill were rushed through this year. 

The Sweet–Ammiano disagreement has continued, in part, because the two are not meeting over the BART police issue, even disagreeing over why no such meeting has been taking place. Ammiano, instead, has a meeting planned this week with BART Police Department Review Committee members Ward Allen and Keller, to try to work out the differences. While Sweet says that she has sought meetings with Ammiano over the issue, and he has refused to meet with her, Mecke said by telephone that the BART board contingent to this week’s meeting with Ammiano was decided by BART itself, not Ammiano.