I recently reviewed the videotape of Oscar Grant’s shooting and am appalled at the response that the Oakland Police Dept. has made. I understand that every law enforcement agency has its policy and procedures for handling shootings, and that there is probably a small team of investigators working on this case right now. However, regardless of the guilt or innocence of Officer Johannes Mehserle, the leadership at the police department has made a huge mistake in how they are handling this crisis.
Assuming that the department is being run efficiently (giving them the benefit of the doubt), the officers at the scene of the shooting should have been trained to tell the truth in their internal reports made right after the incident. From the videotape, it appears (although this is in dispute) that Oscar was handcuffed and lying face down on the ground when he was shot by Mehserle. This is important, but almost irrelevant. Why? Because the video clearly, without any doubt whatsoever, shows that the officers were not in any immediate threat, that Oscar appeared to be cooperating with them, and that he was shot at point blank range, in the back, without reason.
Now, Mehserle may have felt threatened, he may have lost his nerve, or a countless number of other scenarios are possible – however, the initial reports filed by officers at the scene should have reflected that there may have been reason to suspect that a mistake was made.
I have not seen the internal reports, but here is the first hint of poor leadership. If the initial reports filed by the officers at the scene made no mention of the possibility of an error being made, then the police chief is not doing his job. If the reports are not accurate, the integrity of every police officer will be questioned. Let’s look at this from the opposite perspective – that the internal report was accurately filed and that there was an indication that a mistake had been made.
If the report was filed correctly, indicating that there were questionable circumstances involved, the officer in question should have been immediately taken into custody while an investigation was carried out. This does not mean that the officer is presumed to be guilty. What this action would have demonstrated is that the police leadership has as much respect for the victim as they do for its officers. Officers are paid by taxpayers to serve and protect… the people. All people. By failing to put Mehserle into custody, the police leadership are clearly sending a signal that they are protecting their own, regardless of the cicumstances.
I understand that this course of action would not be possible in all shootings. It is also clear that you don’t want officers to hesitate to respond with the appropriate amount of force, including discharging their weapon if and when necessary, because they fear they will be reprimanded. However, if good leadership is in place, there would be a mechanism in place to quickly and efficiently determine when to place an officer in custody after a shooting under questionable circumstances.
So regardless of the accuracy of the reports, the incident indicates that poor leadership exists. Either the reports were filed incorrectly, or they were filed correctly but appropriate action was not taken. But wait, there is more. The next indication of failed leadership is that as of today Mehserle is free (although he did resign from the force). I viewed the videotape and it gives a lot of credence to the claims that Oscar was killed unnecessarily. Because of the nature of this shooting, as soon as this video was released, Mehserle should have been placed in custody. If the situation was reversed, and an officer was shot by a known suspect, the suspect would without question be apprehended and put into custody. So what makes this any different?
What course of action would I recommend? The mayor should terminate the police chief and immediately take Mehserle into custody and expedite the investigation to have it completed within a week.
Leadership has failed on many levels in this case. Oakland’s Mayor Ron Dellum would be wise to consider how other organizations have responded to public relations fiascos successfully in the past. A great example would be how Johnson & Johnson responded to the Tylenol scare back in 1982.
All the best,
All the time,