DUBLIN -- A series of BART police reforms following the fatal 2009 shooting of unarmed train rider Oscar Grant led to major changes in the transit police force, including a new chief, new commanders, wearable video cameras and a culture shift that demanded officers treat commuters and criminal suspects with respect, not just brute authority.
But some police watchdogs believe none of those reforms prepared the BART Police Department for the latest tragedy to befall the agency, this time a mile away from the closest rail station, when a BART police officer fatally shot his colleague Tuesday after they entered a robbery suspect's apartment in Dublin.
"In my 35 years there, we never lost an officer, let alone have a friendly-fire death. It's a little beyond understanding," said Suzanne Angeli, a retired BART employee who sat on a police oversight board formed in the wake of the Grant tragedy.
Even after years of intense public scrutiny and stricter training requirements on the use of force, longtime observers of BART's police operations were left as confused as anyone about what could have gone so wrong Tuesday. Ironically, Angeli said the detective who died, Sgt. Tom Smith Jr., was intimately involved in the very reform efforts that were supposed to make the police agency and the public safer.
"BART recognized they had a need for a lot of reforms of their police department," said Mark Smith, BART's independent police auditor who is now monitoring the investigation of how Smith was killed.
A state bill proposed by then-Assemblyman Sandré Swanson, D-Alameda, and signed in 2010 by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger created the new three-person auditor's office to help investigate complaints against officers. It also established the citizen advisory board, of which Angeli was one of the original members, whose mission included looking at whether BART's policing practices were biased against African-Americans and other groups.
"What happened with the Oscar Grant incident was it brought to light that things had maybe stagnated, and it was time to bring in new people," said Angeli, who is also a former mayor of Pleasant Hill. "It was time to bring everybody up to date with how to deal with the new ethnicity of the Bay Area."
Though he worked for BART for two decades, Tom Smith was one of the new guard tasked to help guide reforms "because he was very well-liked, he was very responsible, and he communicated well," able to deal with a lot of different stakeholders "without any arrogance," Angeli said. The police chief assigned Smith to deal with the public on some training and reform issues, including when a BART officer fatally shot a homeless man at a San Francisco station in 2011.
But many of those reforms -- which included the wearing of lapel cameras by uniformed officers -- were focused on how BART officers connect with the public on trains and station platforms, not how they conduct investigations far from BART property.
While most of the Bay Area public only interacts with BART police officers who are patrolling trains and rail stations, the BART police force is like any other law enforcement agency, with a detective force that investigates crimes and travels around the region to pursue leads and make arrests. That's what Smith and the officers who accompanied him were doing when they entered an unlocked Dublin apartment Tuesday in pursuit of a missing iPhone and other stolen items.
When it comes to BART's normal tactical operations, "the level of training is at or above the standard of other agencies," said Lafayette lawyer Benjamin Douglas, another member of the BART police oversight board.
Of all the reforms, "I don't think any of it bears directly on what happened" Tuesday, Douglas said.
A top-down audit by the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives that was completed in 2010 recommended a host of changes that needed to be made at BART, including how officers are trained on the use of force. A consultant just last month commended the BART Police Department for successfully implementing many changes.
Among the skeptics are the family members of Grant, who was shot and killed by BART police Officer Johannes Mehserle in the early morning hours of Jan. 1, 2009. News of another officer-involved shooting reopened the wounds for a family that just marked the fifth anniversary of Grant's death.
"Are BART officers really in need of a weapon? We say that they're not. Their training hasn't been sufficient. Now they're shooting each other," said Grant's uncle, Cephus "Bobby" Johnson.
Johnson and other family members believe the reform measures remain insufficient.
"There has to be a failure of training somewhere, unless this shooting was intentional," Johnson said. "The use-of-force training they utilize is really inadequate. ... BART has not passed the test."