Yes, I do, especially after reading this portrait of him in the San Francisco Chronicle. Until videos hit the national airwaves of him fatally shooting an unarmed African-American man in the back, Johannes Mehserle, 27, had lived a “quiet, unremarkable life without apparent troubles,” the Chronicle says.
In fact, until recently he had been living close by, in Lafayette, with his girlfriend and new baby. Bill Dodd, a Napa County Supervisor who had coached Mehserle for his hometown Napa high school basketball team told the Napa Valley Register that Mehserle was a “gentle giant. … He is a very kind, caring and gentle person.”
From this description, Mehserle doesn’t fit the image of the stereotypical rogue “cowboy” cop. This stereotype applies to the “bad apple,” the officer who, on his own or with a small band of similarly minded cop brothers, stockpiles citizen complaints for aggressive use of force, ruins prosecutions of criminal defendants because of lawless tactics to gain evidence, and makes his police department the target of civil rights complaints and investigative news stories. Over the years, the Oakland and Richmond police departments have been the targets of these sorts of complaints and news stories.
But even if Mehserle so far doesn’t fit that cowboy cop image, he still committed the kind of unthinkable act early on New Year’s Day that gives cops, especially those working in tough urban areas, a very bad name within the communities they serve.
While helping fellow BART officers quell a disturbance on a train stopped at Oakland's Fruitvale BART station, Mehserle pulled out his gun and fired it into the back of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old supermarket worker who was lying face down on the station platform.
It was the “shot heard around the world,” as one news headline referred to it. The shooting, the perception that BART police and the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office were dragging their feet on the investigation, and Mehserle’s avoidance of an interview with BART police internal affairs—these events combined to touch off a surge of public outrage that exploded into riots in Oakland on Wednesday night.
There’s some speculation that the shooting was a tragic accident. Maybe Mehserle—who had been with the force just two years after graduating from a 22-week police academy and receiving 72 hours of firearms training—thought he was pulling out his Taser, not his handgun. He just wanted to stun Grant—not kill him. Since Mehserle didn’t tell his story to investigators, and quit the force to avoid the internal affairs interview, it’s hard for any of us to know what he was thinking.
I wish Mehserle had told his side. But soon after the shooting, he retained a lawyer, who no doubt told him to keep his mouth shut. Probably Mehserle’s lawyer advised him that he had little choice but to keep his mouth shut. That's what defense attorneys do. In our adversarial court system and in an extremely sensitive, politically charged, high-profile case like this one, you can bet that there will be pressure for the District Attorney’s Office to come down hard on Mehserle and seek murder charges against him—the kind that could send him to prison for a very long time, possibly life. Even if Mehserle were to claim the shooting was an accident, that he screwed up terribly in the heat of this confrontational moment, I’m betting a prosecutor and John Burris, the famed civil rights attorney hired by Grant’s family to file the lawsuit against BART, would pick apart every word of any statement Mehserle makes.
At this point, would anything Mehserle says make any difference? Even if he admits he got scared, that he was out of his league in dealing with this incident; or if he admits he perceived Grant, because he’s African-American, to be a dangerous thug who needed to be immediately subdued. Strike that! No way Mehserle could admit that, even if it might be the truth--the truth that shall not be named because in our society race is such a difficult topic to discuss openly and honestly.
But even if Mehserle apologizes and even if he told the truth, including admitting any conscious or unconscious racial bias on his part, would that make much difference? Probably not, or probably not right away. Many people are feeling too raw about this.
In any case, I feel sorry for Mehserle. Many would say my sympathy is woefully misplaced. What about Oscar Grant? At least Mehserle is still alive. Oscar Grant is not. And what about Oscar Grant’s family?
I know my sympathy defies a certain prevailing viewpoint of this case, especially among the lefty liberals with whom I sometimes side with. To them, this is a civil rights violation of the most egregious kind. Some might say I can more easily identify with the plight of Mehserle and his family, who have received death threats, because I’m white and middle-class.
Yes, there is some truth to that.
At the same time, I can say I have some understanding of the anger against Mehserle, the BART police, and law enforcement in general. In another life, I covered crime in Richmond for a daily newspaper. Every day, I encountered the distrust that people in poor, largely African-American neighborhoods had for the police and for white reporters like me.
I’d like to think that most of the Richmond cops were honorable people trying to perform a vital community service. I certainly met a fair share who fit this description. But I remember hearing officers here and there--white and black--express dismissive attitudes about some of the people in those neighborhoods. For example, I remember the white homicide detective who spoke derisively about the grieving black minister who kept nagging him for information about the investigation into the shooting death of his teenage son. The detective spoke as if this young homicide victim deserved to die, because maybe he was mixing with a certain crowd. According to the detective, the father should therefore get used to the fact that, because his son’s death was probably gang-related, no one was going to come forward with any information.
As I listened to the detective, I thought that maybe if he treated this father with more sympathy and respect and adjusted his attitude about this victim and this case, he might be more effective in getting information and solving the crime. But what did I know? I was a young reporter, and this detective—jaded, weary—was far more experienced than me in homicide investigations and in the ways of the Richmond gang world. And this detective had scores of similar unsolved murder cases stacked on his desk and in his file cabinet.
Back to my sympathy for Johannes Mehserle. It actually goes beyond me being white, middle-class and therefore more in sync with the Establishment. It has to do with the empathy I feel for anyone who has screwed up in a major, life-shattering way. For as long as I can remember, I’ve carried around this sense of guilt, imperfection, and massive self-doubt. If something goes wrong at home, at work, or in a relationship with a friend or family member, I tend to look first to myself to blame. Thank God, I haven’t screwed up in any super serious way in my life, nothing near as bad as how Mehserle screwed up .
But it’s my greatest fear that I one day will. That I will do something stupid, in a moment of inattention, self-centeredness, desperation, or panic, that will really hurt someone. And then I will forever have to live with the crushing guilt, remorse, and shame that goes with it. I’ve felt crushing guilt for comparatively small sins. I can’t imagine what it must be like, right now, to be Johannes Mehserle—if he is the decent gentle giant as described by family friends, and if does feel guilt, remorse, and shame for his actions on New Year’s Day. If he is plagued with these feelings, how is he going to continue to live with himself?
Back to my early reporting days: A young boy was killed when his father lost control of the pickup truck he was driving. The father may have had a little bit to drink. As the local reporter, I felt like our newspaper should have a moving story about the boy—who he was, where he went to school, what he was like. So, I called the boy’s house. The father answered. I know he was facing criminal charges, but I suppose he had posted bail to get out of jail and was back home. Amazingly, the father was willing to talk to me. I was young, naïve, insensitive, and I asked the father something bone-headed like “How do you feel?” I don’t remember what the father said. I just remember his voice, low and somber and filled with a tremor of profound guilt, shock, horror, and grief.
Now, as a parent, my greatest fear is not that someone else will hurt my son, but that I will do something to hurt him. I can see it happening: me indulging in a brief moment of inattention while driving us somewhere in the car and getting us into a wreck that hurts or kills him, and leaves me to live with that.
Yes, that conversation with the father who killed his son in the truck rollover has stayed with me, because it put me in a situation where I was confronting my worst fear: of screwing up so massively and tragically and of then having to live with it.
And that’s why I feel sorry for Johannes Mehserle.