By Sean Maher and Denis Cuff
OAKLAND — An emotional BART board apologized Thursday for the death of an unarmed passenger who was shot in the back by a transit police officer on New Year's Day.
Responding to a public outcry over the death of Oscar Grant III at the Fruitvale BART station, the transit board also vowed to create a new committee to look into police issues and consider the possibility of setting up a civilian police review board for the transit agency.
BART board members — some with voices cracking with emotion — apologized for the death of Grant, a 22-year-old black man, as he lay on his stomach at a train platform where police had ordered several riders to the ground following a dispute among riders on a train.
"I think what the community needs to hear is that we apologize to his family," Bob Franklin, a BART board member from Oakland, said after hearing 60 public speakers over six hours denounce the shooting. "As a board member, I apologize."
Other directors agreed, saying that they are distraught over Grant's death and feel sorry even if they have been reluctant to comment on details of the investigation into the shooting, which was recorded by several riders' cell phone cameras and posted on the Internet.
"That young man did nothing wrong that should have caused him to lose his life that morning," said BART board member Joel Keller of Antioch. "I'm sorry."
The board will hold a special meeting soon to create a new public safety committee to look into police issues such as officer training and hiring.
BART board member Tom Radulovich of San Francisco proposed that the new board committee look into creating a civilian police review board to monitor police activities.
The board members' statements — and their adjournment of their meeting in Grant's honor — came after many public speakers crowded into the meeting and expressed outrage about the shooting. More than 200 people attended, exceeding the room capacity and prompting authorities to keep some people outside until others left and room opened for newcomers.
Several speakers demanded the immediate arrest of the officer involved.
"Seek out and arrest that man so you can bring charges on him," said Keith Muhammad, a local minister for the Nation of Islam. "He must not be given the chance to get away."
Johannes Mehserle, a former BART police officer who quit his job Wednesday, is under investigation by BART and the Alameda County district attorney's office in the shooting of Grant. In several witness videos, an unarmed Grant appears to be facedown on the ground when Mehserle appears to draw his gun and shoot Grant.
BART board members said they could not take any action related to the shooting Thursday because they had not placed it on the agenda to give the required public notice before acting. However, the board agreed to listen to everyone who spoke.
Amos Brown, minister for the Third Baptist Church of San Francisco, and Charlie Walker, a Hunters Point activist and trucker, demanded that BART provide large contracts to black-owned businesses, saying the shooting reflected larger problems in how the black community is treated.
Several speakers derided the news media for their conduct before and after the shooting. Some accused the coverage of the black community, or lack thereof, of being racist and stereotyping black people as violent and destructive.
"You should be ashamed of yourself. You're sick," Walker said. "You need to look at yourself when you say, 'If you (blacks) ain't killing each other, we ain't gone show up.'"
The overall focus of most comments, however, was on the racial element of the Grant shooting. Several speakers said they thought Grant never would have been bothered at all if he were white.
"We're not even clear Oscar Grant was a suspect of anything, so his even being taken aside in the first place was wrong," Muhammad said.
During his remarks, Oakland resident Mandingo Hayes pointed to a police officer in the back of the room and said, "Officer, just because I look like this, don't mean I intend to do something violent.
"What you seen last night, that was pain," Hayes said, referring to rioting Wednesday night. "You call them thugs, but that was pain. People is tired, don't you understand?"
Hayes apologized for his hoarse voice: "It's from all my hollering last night."
Nedir Bey, adopted son of late Your Black Muslin Bakery founder Yusef Bey, told the BART board that he was pleased by the rioting Wednesday.
"I hope BART gets shut down. ... Eye for an eye, that's what I believe, and if the young soldiers believe it, bless them," he said. "I love what they did. If it was my business on fire, I would bless them."
Bey joined the chorus of speakers asking why Mehserle has not been arrested.
"What does it take to have a white cop arrested?" he asked.
BART spokesman Linton Johnson said outside the meeting that he understood the public's frustration but explained that a full criminal investigation would require more than simply citing the cell phone videos.
"They think, 'We can see it. It's on video, and we can see what happened,'" Johnson said. "But the courts say you need to find other things that you didn't see on the tape."
Rita Jones, a 53-year-old Oakland schoolteacher, said she had taught her children as her parents had taught her to trust the police.
"I told them, 'Go to the police when you have a problem,'" she said. "But now I'm a grandmother, and some of my grandchildren are boys. And I cannot in my heart tell them the same."
Oakland Councilmember Desley Brooks presented written demands that BART create a citizens review board to monitor BART police, request that the California attorney general investigate the shooting, and identify and investigate all officers present at the shooting that night for possible misconduct.
She also asked that BART improve public communications about the shooting investigation and conduct hearings to explain BART policies on police hiring, training, use of force, diversity, de-escalation and other issues.