The sentence handed to former Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officer Johannes Mehserle for shooting and killing an unarmed Black man, Oscar Grant, is deplorable. The officer shot Grant in the back as the man lay on his stomach on a train station platform early on New Year’s Day last year. Police officers had been called to the station on reports of a fight. A passenger on a BART train captured the shooting on his cell phone camera and the video went viral on You Tube. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert Perry sentenced Mehserle to just two years in prison and failed to apply California’s gun enhancement law that mandates stiffer sentences when firearms are used in a crime.
The hypocrisy of the sentence is most evident when considering the wrath directed toward NFL quarterback Michael Vick for his mistreatment of dogs and subsequent conviction and sentencing to 23 months for his role in running a dog-fighting operation. Are we really expected to accept the verdict of a justice system that places greater value on the life of a dog than a human being when the victim is Black and male? The Black community in Oakland, and throughout the country, has every right to be angry over this injustice in the killing of Oscar Grant.
In his defense, the former officer claims he mistook his gun for his taser. The officer offers a flimsy excuse when one considers that Grant was unarmed, subdued and laying face down when Mehserle shot him in the back. Even if the officer thought he had his taser, why was that weapon necessary? The video of the shooting shows clearly that Grant was not resisting and the officers at the scene were in control of the situation. We expect trained law enforcement officers to exercise restraint in the discharge of their weapons, not to shoot first and make excuses second.
Add the Mehserle verdict to the score of injustices incurred by Black families who have experienced a defenseless family member gunned down by a police officer. It offers little comfort to those left behind – mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers – to offer that most officers are good and work hard to uphold the law. That perspective does not take away the sting of seeing a loved one lifeless on the ground or hearing an “excuse” from an officer sworn to uphold the law. The roll call of names is long of Black people who were the victims of a police “mistake.”
We do not see this long-term pattern of “accidental” shootings by police against any other group in this nation, with the exception of episodes involving Hispanics. It is particularly true of the history of police violence against Black men. If white men were subjected to the same type of treatment, it is not hard to imagine the different reaction of society. Where is the outrage we heard when the defendant was a Black athlete accused of mistreating animals? Black men are not paranoid in their mistrust of police. It is a learned reaction after decades of being shown that the life of a Black male is valued at a discount rate. The flimsy sentence handed to Johannes Mehserle for killing Oscar Grant is nothing short of confirmation of the latter point.
It is time our nation’s law enforcement agencies confronted the issue of the use of deadly force by police against Blacks. We can no longer be told to be calm, to be satisfied that we receive “some” justice in a court of law, and officers’ missteps should be understood given the dangers they encounter on the job. We must demand full justice and the conviction and sentencing of police officers on murder charges when there is clear evidence that deadly force was unjustifiably used. It is time we removed killer cops from our communities. It is in the best interest of the police and the Black community alike.