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Case Clawback

DA reopens Oscar Grant investigation to look at BART officer's actions in fatal 2009 shooting

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With protests over police brutality against Black Americans still ringing across the country more than decade after Oscar Grant's death at the hands of BART police officers, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley announced on Monday that her office will reopen the investigation into the killing on New Year's Day 2009.

"We have listened closely to the requests of the family of Oscar Grant," O'Malley said in a statement. "We are reopening our investigation. I have assigned a team of lawyers to look back into the circumstances that caused the death of Oscar Grant. We will evaluate the evidence and the law, including the applicable law at the time and the statute of limitations, and make a determination."

The stunning announcement came at roughly the same time Grant's family and supporters held a press conference at the Fruitvale BART station to call for a reopening of the case—specifically the actions of former BART police officer Anthony Pirone.

The Grant family noted strong similarities between Pirone's use of his knee to Grant's head and the technique used by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin that led to the killing of George Floyd in May.

An internal investigation by BART of the Grant shooting in 2009—unearthed last year via a public records request—found that Pirone instigated the incident. "Pirone was, in large part, responsible for setting the events in motion that created a chaotic and tense situation on the platform, setting the stage, even if inadvertent, for the shooting of Oscar Grant," according to the report.

Pirone was never charged.

However, previous Alameda County District Attorney Tom Orloff charged BART police officer Johannes Mehserle with second-degree murder for fatally shooting Grant. Mehserle said he mistakenly believed he had discharged his Taser. A jury found Mehserle guilty in 2010 of involuntary manslaughter instead of murder.

The verdict triggered immediate, large-scale protests in Oakland—as well as many more to come over the next decade—that began peacefully and often turned violent by nightfall. The Grant shooting also ushered in a defining moment for the movement to hold police accountable for wrongdoing after cellphone video of the incident posted online triggered outrage. The police perspective was typically the only perspective given during violent incidents at that time, but the video of Grant's killing provided a strong alternative view.

In the decade since, video of police officers behaving violently against Black people has created a tipping point for how Americans view policing and calls for a "re-imagining" of police departments.

O'Malley's announcement to reopen the Grant case suggests she hears the calls for change in Alameda County. In the time since the county Board of Supervisors appointed O'Malley to be district attorney in September 2009, she had never charged an Alameda County police officer until just last month. Many were surprised when O'Malley announced on Sept. 15 that she would charge San Leandro police officer Jason Fletcher with manslaughter in the fatal shooting of Steven Taylor, a 33-year-old Black man with a history of mental illness. Fletcher shot Taylor inside a San Leandro Walmart after responding to reports of a man attempting to shoplift items and waving a bat at employees and customers.

O'Malley questioned why Fletcher had not used de-escalation techniques during the incident.

Instead, Fletcher shot Taylor 40 seconds after entering the store.

Big money tossed around in Oakland council race

Labor unions desperately want to defeat Oakland District 3 Council member Lynette Gibson McElhaney this November, and they have the receipts to show their discontent.

An Independent Expenditure Committee (IE) backed by the powerful Service Employees International (SEIU) Local 1021, Alameda Labor Council and other unions pumped $343,000 into the District 3 race through Sept. 19, the most recent campaign finance reporting period. Since then, the IE raised another $15,000 through Oct. 2, according to finance reports.

The official name of the IE is "Oakland 2020 Committee to Replace Lynette Gibson McElhaney and Elect Carroll Fife and Rebecca Kaplan to the Oakland City Council, sponsored by Alameda Labor Council, AFL-CIO."

The SEIU Local 1021, alone, contributed $202,000 to the IE to defeat McElhaney. The Alameda Labor Council added another $75,000, and the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE) Local 21 donated $50,000 to the effort.

McElhaney's main challenger in the West Oakland council race, housing and police accountability activist Carroll Fife, also pulled her own weight in the money column. Fife's $168,00 was the largest amount of campaign cash raised by any Oakland candidate during the most recent filing period, from July 1 to Sept. 19.

McElhaney reported $93,000 in fundraising since July 1, according to finance reports, and raised a total of $151,000 since the beginning of the year.

The infusion of campaign cash by East Bay unions, through the IE, is massive—even for Oakland, where big-spending races are common—as is the presence of IEs, which by law must be unaffiliated with campaigns they support or oppose.

Labor unions in Oakland and the East Bay have issued growing disenchantment with McElhaney in recent years for a perception that she no longer speaks for the labor movement. To underscore the union's rancor against McElhaney, a whisper campaign asserting she was a former Republican was pervasive during the spring.

The spending onslaught by labor, though, has not yet begun in earnest. With $286,000 in the bank as of mid-September, the labor IE began spending at a far more rapid pace in just the past week. Since the Sept. 19 finance reports, the IE spent a total of $138,551, including a $47,500 expenditure on Oct. 2 for online advertisements. Another $26,993 was spent the same day for phone banking.

McElhaney used the IE as a foil in recent weeks to criticize the unions' large outlay of resources in the District 3 race, while reaching out to voters and potential donors to her own campaign.

The labor IE sent four mailers to voters in the past two weeks, costing a grand total of $55,354. One of the mailers was sent on behalf of Oakland at-large Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan's campaign, which is facing a well-financed challenger in local restaurant-owner Derreck Johnson. But while financial support from unions also comes with a well-oiled network of members and volunteers, the power of retail campaigning will likely be dampened this election due to the pandemic and public health restrictions.

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