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Sunday, January 11, 2009

When Assault Becomes Murder - An Analysis of the Oscar Grant Shooting

The videotaped shooting death of Oscar Grant by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle has stirred angry demands for criminal charges from the public as BART officials and the Alameda County District Attorney have dragged their feet.

Officials claim that they need more time to investigate what the public has already seen... a police officer shooting an unarmed man who posed no threat in the back, in cold blood.

The BART police department, transit authority, and District Attorney, Tom Orloff, have all made it clear that they are desperately seeking evidence to absolve the officer by floating speculation that it was an accident of some sort or that there was some justification for the shooting that wasn't captured on the three different videos that have been released to the public... videos that all show the same thing... an unjustified killing.

Fellow police officers have also tried to do the same by floating the theory of "taser confusion" as cause for this killing, suggesting that it's easy to confuse a brightly colored device that is lighter than, has a different grip than, and is supposed to be carried on the opposite side than a service weapon.

Even if we accept this dubious possibility the death is still a criminal matter by way of shear negligence. But there's another disturbing aspect to this death which makes it a crime of intent. it is an aspect that has been entirely missed so far, but was ultimately the series of actions that needlessly put Oscar Grant in harm's way that night.

To understand what caused the arrest of Oscar Grant to spiral downward into murder we need to examine the actions of the other officer, not just Mehserle's. It was this officer who escalated the arrest of an unarmed and cooperative suspect into a use of force situation without any apparent reason whatsoever, and that is what ultimately cost Oscar Grant his life.

The Analysis
Note: the following analysis is of this third video from KTVU shot from the train by a cell phone camera. Even though it's quality isn't as good as the others and I can't embed it here, it's important to use this as an index because it starts before the others and shows the unnamed officer strike Grant in the face, which is likely what caused others to start filming.

An analysis of this video shows that:

At mark 00:10 an unidentified bald officer walks up and punches Oscar Grant in the face. This is obvious in the video as the officer's arm moves forward and Grant's head snaps back and Grant begins to collapse. After striking Grant the officer moves him to a seated position and Grant puts his hands up palm forward in supplication, the officer orders another man to sit and then leaves after a few seconds.

At 01:23, after the bald officer returns he appears to order the detainees arrest, this is apparent as the officers were talking with the suspects until the bald officer marched back over. At this point Mehserle moves Grant to a kneeling position and pulls Grant's arms behind him, there is no sign of resistance at this point.

However, at 01:26 Mehserle pushes Grant face first to the ground while the bald officer plants his knee on Grant's neck, which causes Grant to involuntarily squirm due to the pain of that maneuver. Up to this point there appeared to be no threat posed by Grant to justify the use of this tactic.

At 01:28 Mehserle makes a furtive grab for his service weapon, but then stops.

At 01:45 Mehserle grabs at his service weapon again, this time he continues to try to pull it from the holster for at least 2 full seconds, ample time to have figured out that this was not a taser which is held in a different type of holster and has a different feel.

Four seconds later, at 01:49, the bald officer shifts his stance to the other side of Grant to put himself out of the line of fire, but resumes his pain compliance hold with his knee on Grant's neck while Mehserle pulls his service weapon from the holster. This would indicate that the order to fire, whether it was to fire a taser or the Mehserle's service weapon, came from the bald officer.

At 01:51 Mehserle gets into his stance and aims his weapon at Grant while the bald officer maintains his hold. If this was in prep for the application of a taser the bald officer would have moved away now to avoid getting shocked.

At 01:52 Mehserle fires a shot into Grant's back as the bald officer continues to hold him face down on the floor of the station.

It's only one second later, at 01:53, that the bald officer finally stands up and steps away from the mortally injured Grant.

The Conclusion
The actions of the unnamed bald officer's aggressive use of force, both when he punches Grant in the face at the beginning of the video and when he needlessly employed a pain compliance move on a suspect that was otherwise cooperative, are what ultimately led to Grant's death. It is why there must be criminal charges in this case, a case of assault that resulted in the death of an unarmed person...

To understand this, consider that the unnamed officer is seen "taking a knee" on Oscar Grant's neck. This police tactic is relatively new and used often as a pain compliance move that both immobilizes a suspect and causes severe pain in order to, supposedly, force dangerous suspects to comply with orders that would allow for restraints to be applied when they otherwise wouldn't.

Clip taken from the arrest of Mike Ladd at an anti-war march in Seattle on 03/2007. Charges against Ladd for resisting arrest were later dropped when this video proved the application of the officer's pain compliance holds prevented Ladd from following commands to put his hands behind his back.

The problem with this hold is that it does such a good job of immobilizing a suspect that it often renders them incapable of following commands to put their arms behind them so cuffs can be applied, especially if the person held has tried to catch their fall when thrown to the ground and ends up with an arm trapped underneath them when the hold is applied.

More than this, the hold causes so much pain that most people can't help but kick their legs and squirm in pain as a reflexive response to that pain, which often causes officers to use even more force to enact an arrest, including the use of another pain compliance tool called a taser.

The last image recorded on AP photojournalist Matthew Rourke's before he was arrested in St. Paul as documented here. It shows how suspects will often react involuntarily to the application of this painful move.

This problem with the "taking a knee" on a suspect's neck has been documented before and has resulted in suspect being cleared of resisting arrest charges upon review of video evidence before, yet the tactic remains a favorite of police officers everywhere. As seen numerous times in St. Paul during the RNC protests.

It was the other officer's rush to use force to enact the arrest of the otherwise non-threatening Oscar Grant and that officers rush to needlessly use a pain compliance hold on a person who presented no threat that set into motion the series of events which cost Oscar Grant his life on New Years morning... irregardless as to whether the bullet that tore through his back was fired accidentally or on purpose.

In other words, the two officers involved with detaining Oscar Grant intended to hurt him without justification that night, and that's considered a crime called assault. And when the crime of assault results in a death, that's considered murder, even if the death was the ultimate intent of the two officers involved or not.

Updated 17:39 01/11/09


Anonymous said...

I agree with you completely. It's clear from the videos that the police themselves escalated the situation and were in the process of assaulting Mr. Grant, without provocation, when he was shot. There was no more reason to taser him than there was to shoot him. No one should get off on the excuse that they didn't mean to kill/shoot him. They certainly meant to assault him and he was killed in the course of the assault.

NPMSRP said...

Thank you for the comment, and yes, that is the whole idea.

Here in Seattle we had a similar case that didn't involve a cop. A man had thought another male had assaulted his sister in a traffic dispute and punched him once in the head. The man who was punched fell backwards and hit his head on the pavement and died. The assailant was charged with murder, even though that wasn't his intent. It's the same premise here.

What's interesting to watch is not just Mehserle, but his fellow officer. When Mehserle reaches for his gun the second time, the other officer looks at Mehserle and then shifts to the other side while Mehserle continues to try and pull his weapon out of the holster... That officer knows Mehserle is about to fire, that's why he moves out of the line of fire.

Thank you for reading, and thank you for taking the time to comment!

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with your analysis. There was absolutely no need to escalate the situation by the officers. I thought the police were trained to difuse/descalate a situation, not finish it off in the street in cold blood. If this was an accident, which I really doubt, there should be some consequences to be paid by the police because this can't go on any longer. There are too many single parents out there struggling to survive and this was no exception. I'm just glad we live in this day and age where modern technology is readily accessible to everyone and not just elite to grab this useful footage for the world to see the injustice still going on today. Something must be done.

Unknown said...

I would not be surprised to see the officer charged with a crime, but even though it's clear he should be charged with murder, he will likely get off with a much lesser charge, like involuntary manslaughter. District attorneys do not like to prosecute cops, and unfortunately cos know this all too well. Then, once the media is no longer covering this story, it will be pleaded to an even lesser crime still. By that time the crime will be so insignificant that the judge may give the officer probation and no jail time. Then, the only way possible for justice to be rendered will be when/if some citizen decided to take justice into his own hands and blows the cop away. It's a sad reflection of justice in our police state, that such vigilante justice is pretty much the only form of justice possible.

Anonymous said...

It's true, but unfortunate, that DAs don't like prosecuting cops. It's my opinion that police officers, as the people society charges with the responsibility of using force to maintain order and enforce our laws, have a much higher level of responsibility. When a cop abuses that power and abuses the trust we've placed in them, they should face even tougher consequences than an ordinary criminal.

BrianJ said...

Eric - I agree with you about DAs not wanting to prosecute cops. But calling for another murder in order for "justice" to be served, is neither justice, nor a good idea.

The police (and the army) are meant to serve the people. When that is not happening properly, then the people have to become more involved with the government and the police.

BART does not have civilian oversight. This is a somewhat complicated problem due to the multi-jurisdictional nature of BART, but it is a solvable problem.

On thing that is always going to be true is that as long as we have police, we are going to have incidents where civilians are hurt by police. The best we can hope for is that such incidents are, in every case, an accurate expression of both the law and the will of the people.

In the case of the killing of Oscar Grant, neither is true.

Anonymous said...

You did not mention how Mehserle attacked the kid next to Grant when he first arrived on the scene before moving to arrest Grant. This can be clearly seen later on in the video that shows Pirone striking Grant. Obvious that both men were out for a little vengeance that night!

NPMSRP said...

Actually, I mention it in a second analysis I did in response to Tony Pirone's lawyer's assertion that Pirone struck grant because Grant allegedly tried to knee Pirone in the groin.

You can read that post here: Video Analysis- Was Pirone Justified When He Punched Oscar Grant

Thanks for the comment, and thanks for taking the time to examine the video yourself!

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