Oakland is once again in an uproar over a fatal police shooting of an African-American man. In 2007, it was Gary King Jr. In 2009, it was Oscar Grant. In 2010, it was Derrick Jones. In 2011, it was Raheim Brown. This year, it's Alan Dwayne Blueford. The eighteen-year-old Skyline High student was shot and killed on May 6 at 92nd Avenue and Birch Street after fleeing a stop by two Oakland police officers, just weeks before his graduation.
The shooting doesn't just mark another incident in the Oakland Police Department's history of killing unarmed suspects, especially young black men, but it also raises questions about the department's vetting process. The officer involved had been accused of excessive force before, while working for the New York Police Department.
According to media reports and a federal lawsuit filed by Blueford's family on July 19, Blueford and two friends were standing on 90th Avenue near Birch Street shortly after midnight on May 6 when two OPD officers — Miguel Masso and his unnamed partner — pulled up on the sidewalk in front of the trio. According to statements made by Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan, the two officers had been dispatched to respond to a fight that had taken place at 85th Avenue and Holly Street. Jordan claimed that the trio was seen passing an object around, and Officer Masso and his partner suspected it was either a weapon or drugs.
Adam Blueford, Alan's father, said in an interview that his son was in the neighborhood to watch the Miguel Cotto-Floyd Mayweather Jr. fight with friends. The officers detained the three young men, questioned them about where they were going, and began to pat them down in search of weapons or drugs. For reasons unknown — although he was on juvenile probation for burglary in San Joaquin County at the time — Alan Blueford took off running.
According to witnesses who saw the chase and who are cited in the lawsuit, Masso pursued Blueford down Birch Street toward a crowd of people gathered on the sidewalk and in the street just past 92nd Avenue. OPD and Masso's attorney, Harry Stern, have claimed that Blueford pulled a gun and pointed it at Masso twice during the foot chase. The Blueford family's lawsuit asserts that Alan turned into the driveway of a single-story house at 9230 Birch Street, where he tripped and fell on his back at the entrance of the driveway. A party was in full swing in the backyard of the house, and children played soccer on thinning grass in the front yard. A witness observed what appeared to be a small black gun about twenty feet from Blueford further up the driveway, but claims the teenager made no effort to recover the weapon. The lawsuit claims that as Alan attempted to get up off the concrete, Officer Masso fired four shots, striking the teenager three times, once in the left shoulder, and on both sides of his upper chest.
The fourth shot has been the greatest source of controversy. In his report, Alameda County Coroner's investigator Solomon Unubun wrote that OPD Officer Justin Buna contacted him at 1:29 a.m. on May 6 and "told me the decedent, an unidentified African-American male, had been shot by an OPD Officer, after the decedent brandished a firearm during a foot pursuit and shot at the officer." Initial media reports also noted an exchange of gunfire, stating that Officer Masso had been wounded by the suspect's weapon. However, on May 8, OPD issued a press release stating that Masso had shot himself in the foot with the fourth round and that the pistol recovered at the scene had not been fired.
According to Unubun's report, Officer Buna also informed Unubun that Blueford's body had been moved to Highland Hospital after his death had been pronounced at 12:20 a.m. because "the scene was unsafe," a decision made by OPD Lieutenant James Meeks.
Blueford's shooting is being strongly contested by his family, as the Alameda County District Attorney and OPD's Internal Affairs and Major Crimes units continue to investigate the shooting. The Blueford family is calling for Officer Masso's termination, increased transparency by OPD in regards to police shootings, an end to the "stop and frisk" policy they claim was behind the initial detention of Alan and his friends, and a repeal of the Police Officer's Bill of Rights, which the Bluefords and their attorneys claim shields officer misconduct records from public scrutiny.
Furthermore, details of Officer Masso's past as a cop in New York City raise questions about the officer's decisions regarding uses of force. According to a 2007 civil rights lawsuit, Masso and three other officers were accused of beating, macing, and tasering Rafael Santiago in a holding cell at the 52nd Precinct station house in the Central Bronx. According to the lawsuit and NYPD Internal Affairs documents, four cops, including Masso, entered his cell around 4:30 a.m. on March 15, 2007 while Santiago was sleeping. When Santiago refused their orders to leave his cell to be transported to Bronx Central Booking, he was pulled out of his cell and slammed against the floor. Santiago was tased three times, maced, and kicked repeatedly in the head and body. Medical records confirm Santiago sustained a black eye and six serious burns on his back from the electronic shocks. Santiago was then placed back in his cell and denied medical attention despite repeatedly requesting medical assistance. NYPD investigators identified Miguel Masso as the officer who refused Santiago's requests for treatment.
Santiago's initial claim was filed on July 13, 2007. According to NYPD documents, Masso resigned shortly thereafter, on July 20, 2007, after two years with the police department in order to take a better-paying job with the Morgan Hill Police Department in Santa Clara County. NYPD investigators did not interview him regarding the Santiago incident. Masso joined Morgan Hill on September 27, 2007, and his last day of employment was April 3, 2008.
City records show that Masso began receiving a paycheck from OPD in 2008. Roughly a year after the former NYPD and Morgan Hill officer had joined OPD, on June 6, 2009, an amended complaint was filed that named Masso as one of the officers involved. Meanwhile, NYPD's Internal Affairs cleared Masso of allegations of injuring a prisoner in police custody and violating departmental policy on June 30, 2008. It's unclear whether the investigation was still open when Masso was hired by OPD.
New York City settled with Santiago for $54,000 on March 9, 2010. In 2010, the most recent year for which records are available, Masso's total employee compensation was $149,130. OPD bulletins indicate Masso received departmental awards for recovering firearms. City records show that he currently resides in the Central Valley town of Los Banos.
Sergeant Chris Bolton, chief of staff to Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan, said he did not know when Masso was hired by OPD. However, Bolton asserted that all lateral transfers (i.e., officers transferring to OPD from other police departments) are carefully scrutinized and "receive a full background investigation, including a review of their personnel file" from previous employers. The final decision to hire an officer, Bolton said, weighs heavily on a "character review" of the officer's past actions conducted at the end of the hiring process.
The Blueford family, supported by several community groups such as the Oscar Grant Committee, SEIU Local 1021, Dignity and Resistance, and members of Occupy Oakland, has been publicly pressuring Alameda County law enforcement to release more information about their son's death.
Alan's parents, Jeralynn and Adam Blueford, several relatives, and two dozen supporters held a press conference last Thursday in front of the Alameda County Coroner's Office to demand the release of their son's autopsy and the coroner's investigation.
"My life's been shattered and I'm trying to put together the pieces," said Jeralynn Blueford, who claimed her family had been stonewalled in getting information about the shooting. Following the press conference, the Blueford family was able to obtain a copy of the coroner's report after paying $321 in fees to the Alameda County Sheriff's Office.
Inconsistent statements by OPD about the May 6 shooting have been a deep point of contention between the family's camp and city officials. During a May 23 town-hall meeting at Acts Full Gospel Church in East Oakland, Police Chief Howard Jordan was shouted down and booed out of the room by an angry crowd after repeatedly mispronouncing Alan's last name as "Bueford" and claiming that the boy had pointed a weapon at police and received medical attention at the scene before being transported to Highland Hospital. The coroner's report shows Blueford was pronounced dead in front of 9230 Birch Street before being moved to Highland Hospital on the orders of OPD Lieutenant Meeks.
The Blueford family and its allies continue to decry the Oakland Police Department's initial version of events, calling the allegations that Alan fired shots at Officer Masso a fabrication and character assassination. Chief Jordan's public refutation of the shootout account at the May 23 town hall has not mollified the family's anger. Jordan's chief of staff, Sergeant Bolton, said that given the chaotic aftermath of the shooting, reports of gunfire, and an officer suffering a gunshot wound, "it is understandable — and unfortunate — that officers responding to assist made an assumption about what happened" and relayed that information to reporters.
The initial case management conference for the family's wrongful death lawsuit will be held on October 23. In the meantime, public pressure on OPD and the Alameda County District Attorney to release more information about the Blueford shooting is only likely to mount, as the family appears to be committed to pursuing the truth about what happened to their son.
Editor's Note: To download a PDF of the federal lawsuit filed by Alan Blueford's family, click here.