Police in Bay Area brace for verdict in Mehserle trial
jury could deliver its verdict as early as late this week
By Eric Messinger
San Jose Mercury News
LOS ANGELES — Bay Area law enforcement officials are mobilizing as a Los Angeles jury is poised to deliver a verdict in the trial of former BART police officer Johannes Mehserle, charged with killing an unarmed man on New Year's Day in 2009.
Mehserle is accused of first-degree murder in the death of Oscar Grant. His trial is expected to wrap up in the next several days, and the jury could deliver its verdict as early as late this week.
Linton Johnson, the chief communications officer for BART, said the uncertain timing has complicated preparing a response but that BART police officers will be concentrating on Oakland and San Francisco as areas for potential unrest if Mehserle is found not guilty.
"That would be the most logical places, we believe, for there to be a reaction," he said.
In preparation for the verdict, the Oakland Police Department has conducted training exercises for crowd control and riots. Once the jury begins its deliberations, officers will be on standby, and the department is instructing its officers not to take vacation during that time. An Oakland desk officer added that departments around the Bay Area are also preparing to act when the verdict arrives.
Police are also monitoring fliers, notices and social networking websites, including Twitter and Facebook, in an attempt to gain early notice of mass gatherings or public events.
"We're doing a lot of intelligence work," Johnson said.
Mehserle shot Grant once in the back as he was being arrested at the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland. Grant died of his injuries hours later.
Mehserle last week testified that he accidentally pulled out his gun rather than his Taser, which he said he had intended to use on Grant.
The trial was moved to Los Angeles because of concerns from Mehserle's lawyers about securing an impartial jury. Grant was African-American, and the jury in Los Angeles has no blacks.
In the weeks after Grant was killed, protests turned into riots in parts of Oakland. At least 40 businesses were vandalized, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars of property damage. More than 100 demonstrators were arrested.
Officials and other community members worry that if Mehserle is acquitted, the verdict could provoke a similar, or even intensified, reaction.
"It's such an unpredictable situation," said Nicole Lee, executive director of the Urban Peace Movement. "On all sides, everyone is sort of bracing. "... It's going to be a very emotionally charged situation."
Lee said that she and others who work with Oakland youth are encouraging composure and critical thinking leading up to the verdict but added that "we're not under any illusion that we can control everything that happens in the city."
Authorities have also reached out to local community leaders, including ministers, in advance of any planned demonstrations, according to Holly Joshi, an Oakland police spokeswoman.
Identifying key planners for events or demonstrations is proving challenging, however, amid what Johnson called a "fluid situation."
Johnson said that the priority of BART police will be to allow travelers to get "from Point A to Point B safely," emphasizing that those concerned about any disruption to BART should sign up for text and e-mail alerts through the agency's website.
He added that BART expects to have enough people to "handle what comes at us" and that officers will be under no special instructions for conduct in responding to any rally or demonstration, even in a charged situation.
"They will act in their usual, professional manner," he said.
Lee said that it is paramount for officers to not "exacerbate tensions" with a disproportionate response.
"They have to have enough of a presence to be helpful," Lee said. "But we don't want to create a feeling of increased tension and animosity when there's already so much animosity."
According to Johnson, BART will not attempt to prevent peaceful rallies or demonstrations.
"Part of upholding the law is allowing people to engage in free speech," he said.
Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums and Police Chief Anthony Batts issued a joint statement Friday, emphasizing the need for calm. It read in part:
"We are dedicated to ensuring the safe expressions of emotions during this difficult time. We understand that the community is grieving, and we are in this together. We will get through this together. We are asking the community to come together, look out for one another and stay safe. We will not tolerate destruction or violence."
Copyright 2010 San Jose Mercury News