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Oakland shooting fuels anger over police brutality

Associated Press | 1/14/2009, 4:24 a.m.

Despite criticisms from some black leaders, Oakland Police Department spokesman Jeff Thomason said the department reaches out to the community to work cooperatively to fight crime.

Thomason defended the 826-member agency’s use of force, saying that fewer than 1 percent of contacts between officers and suspects result in shootings by police. There were 10 last year, including six fatalities, he said. No officers involved in shootings since 2004 were charged with crimes, and so far none have been fired.

“Officers are not going out there trying to gun down people,” he said.

Grant, a supermarket butcher with a 4-year-old daughter, was one of several men detained by BART police responding to reports of fighting on a train full of passengers returning from New Year’s Eve celebrations.

Amateur video by several onlookers shows Grant being pushed to the subway platform before an officer fired into his back, killing him.

Grant’s family and community leaders have called for the prosecution of the officer, 27-year-old Johannes Mehserle. The Alameda County District Attorney’s office is investigating, as are the Oakland Police Department and BART.

Mehserle resigned from the agency last Wednesday, but remains free pending the investigation.

Friction between law enforcement and Oakland’s black community has persisted for decades. In 1968, Black Panther Bobby Hutton, 17, was killed by police during a shoot-out. More than 2,000 people attended his funeral.

Public confidence in the Oakland police was further undermined by a corruption case involving several officers known as the Riders, who were accused in 2000 of planting evidence and assaulting drug suspects. The officers were fired but were eventually acquitted in two separate criminal trials. A judge ordered the department to implement reforms, and Oakland paid $11 million to 119 people who claimed they were abused.

Sociologist Benjamin Bowser of California State University, East Bay, said a confluence of factors — high unemployment, cutbacks in social services and a police force operating in a high-risk atmosphere — contributed to the anger after Grant’s slaying.

Before Grant was killed, many black residents already were outraged by the fatal police shooting of Mack “Jody” Woodfox, 27, after a car chase in July.

Authorities say Officer Hector Jimenez fired his weapon because he believed Woodfox, who is black, was reaching for a gun, but no gun was found. Jimenez is on administrative leave pending an internal investigation.

“There is a sense of frustration that the system is not responsive,” said attorney John Burris, who is representing Woodfox’s family and has filed a $25 million claim on behalf of Grant’s family. “There is a sense among African American youth that police accused of misconduct against them are not held accountable.”

Associated Press writers Terence Chea and Evelyn Nieves contributed to this report.

(Associated Press)