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A small group of protesters demonstrate on Broadway and Fourteenth streets in Oakland, Calif., on Thursday, January 8, 2009. (Dean Coppola/Staff)

The public furor after a BART officer shot an unarmed man early New Year's Day could have been tempered if the agency had responded faster, divulged more details, communicated clearly and had a strategy in place, public relations experts said.

"The first 24 hours in a crisis are the most critical. Had they done the right thing in the first 24 hours, maybe we wouldn't have had riots," said David Landis, founder of Landis Communications Inc., a 20-year-old San Francisco-based global public relations firm.

Members of the community protested in demonstrations and at subsequent BART meetings about what they described as stonewalling, a cover-up and silence about the fatal shooting of a prone, unarmed Oscar Grant III by former BART Officer Johannes Mehserle. The shooting was captured on cell phone video and seen online worldwide.

Landis emphasized the importance of acting quickly.

"We live in a digital age where information is available to everyone. In the absence of information, the public is going to draw its own conclusions," Landis said.

The multiple videos and photos taken by witnesses appeared almost instantaneously on the Internet, beating officials to the punch in terms of providing information about the shooting that occurred about 2:30 a.m. Jan. 1.

The first news release issued by BART about the shooting was sent at 4:59 p.m. Jan. 1.

"They should have had a news conference or sent out a news release immediately. The longer an organization takes to respond to a crisis, the more it raises suspicions about its intent and honesty," said Maria Len-Rios, a professor of journalism at the University of Missouri who teaches courses in strategic communication.

The initial BART news release described the incident as one "in which a BART police

officer's firearm discharged, fatally wounding a 22-year-old man."

—‰'The officer's firearm discharged,' sounds like they were covering up," said Jack Detweiler, a retired professor of journalism who taught public relations at the University of Florida for 35 years. "It seems to me that you would try to be as candid as possible. That keeps the agency itself from being suspect."

When Mehserle was arrested the evening of Jan. 13, BART put out a news release about 1 a.m. Jan. 14 confirming the arrest in Nevada — after the news had appeared on television, radio and online newspaper sites.

"We circled the wagons. I think we should have been more forthcoming with the public," said Joel Keller, a BART board member from Brentwood who has experience with the criminal justice system as a retired Solano County probation department worker. "But there were some things we couldn't say about an ongoing investigation without possibly jeopardizing the case."

Linton Johnson, BART's chief spokesman, said the transit agency faced practical and legal constraints in providing information about a police investigation into an unusual event on a holiday weekend.

"We were getting hundreds of media calls a day, and the information was constantly changing. It takes time to get everyone on the same page with the same message," Johnson said.

"When there is a crisis, two factions vie for the CEO's attention," Landis said. "One is the PR team. The other is the lawyer. The lawyer is worried about saying something that might admit guilt. I have a feeling they were listening too much to the lawyers."

Landis emphasized the importance of having a plan.

"BART is a very well-run organization; they do a terrific job for the Bay Area, but everybody has lapses, and this is what leads me to say they didn't have a plan in place," the longtime PR practitioner said.

"Your message must be clear, correct and transparent," Landis said.

Johnson said BART had only one media spokesman on call during the holiday weekend. Now, at least two people will be on call for emergencies, he said.

Lynette Sweet, a BART board member from San Francisco, said publicly last week she would vote to oust BART General Manager Dorothy Dugger and police Chief Gary Gee if it came to a vote because the public communications about the investigation was "mishandled from way up top."

Other board members have not publicly called for ousters, but agree BART should have disclosed more sooner. Board members Gail Murray, of Walnut Creek, and Bob Franklin, of Oakland, said they think the BART police investigation was sound, but BART was too slow to disclose that BART police tried to interview Mehserle the night the shooting occurred and he refused to talk. The delay in disclosing this unnecessarily fueled suspicions of a cover-up, Sweet said.

Johnson said that in its 36-year history, BART has had four officer-involved shootings. He agreed communications about the Jan. 1 shooting could have been better, but added, "Did we do a bad job? No."

Reach Janis Mara at 925-952-2671 or jmara@bayareanewsgroup.com. Reach Denis Cuff at dcuff@bayareanewsgroup.com.