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Regional Interests

Oscar Grant Killing Will Get New Review From California Dept. of Justice

The California Department of Justice announced Tuesday it will look into the actions of a former BART police officer who was involved, but never criminally charged, in the 2009 killing of Oscar Grant.

Grant, a 24-year-old Black man, had no weapons and was being held down on his stomach on a Fruitvale BART station platform when transit cop Johannes Mehserle fired a fatal shot into his back. The incident led to massive protests and murder charges for Mehserle. Mehserle, who said he confused his gun for his Taser, was convicted of manslaughter in 2010 and sentenced to a two-year prison term, of which he served 11 months. He was released in June 2011.

Now more than a decade later, California Attorney General Rob Bonta says his office will look into the actions of a second officer: Anthony ‘Tony’ Pirone.

“Transparency is critical to building and maintaining trust between law enforcement and the communities we serve,” Bonta said in a statement. “The California Department of Justice is committed to conducting a thorough, fair, and independent review and will go where the facts lead.”

The request for an independent review came from BART’s board of directors, and Grant’s family including his mother, Rev. Wanda Johnson, according to the DOJ’s statement.

“He [Pirone] should have been charged 12 years ago,” Johnson said. “And I’m grateful that the attorney general is stepping into it.”

Bonta’s decision to look into Pirone’s role in Oscar Grant’s killing comes on the heels of another review of the case done by Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley last year. In January, O’Malley announced her office would not bring criminal charges against the former transit cop.

Pirone was the first officer on the scene in the early hours of New Year’s Day, 2009, responding to a call about a fight on a crowded BART train. He pulled Grant off the train, kneed Grant and pinned him to the ground moments before Mehserle fired the fatal shot.

BART fired Pirone in 2010, finding he was “in large part, responsible for setting the events in motion that created a chaotic and tense situation on the platform, setting the stage, even if inadvertent, for the shooting of Oscar Grant.”

A lawsuit filed this year by KQED uncovered new details about Pirone’s involvement in Grant’s death and confidential tapes of BART’s flawed investigation of the incident that were featured in the investigative podcast “On Our Watch.”

Video footage and witness testimony revealed Pirone threw Grant’s friend Michael Greer to the ground, struck Grant repeatedly, and used the n-word in a verbal exchange with Grant.

O’Malley called Pirone’s conduct “utterly unprofessional and disgraceful,” in a recorded statement issued in January, but found his only potential crime was assault under color of authority. She said that is a misdemeanor, and the statute of limitations for that crime had long since expired.

“There was no conduct [by Pirone] that would support felony murder,” O’Malley said in a June interview with KQED. A team of five lawyers from her office reviewed all the reports and videos, said O’Malley. “I know that we did more than we’ve done for most cases ever.”

Pirone is currently a Special Forces Communications Sergeant serving in the California National Guard. His lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.

Cephus ‘Uncle Bobby X’ Johnson, Grant’s uncle, said after all this time and many disappointments, he is “cautiously optimistic” about the DOJ review.

Cephus ‘Uncle Bobby X’ Johnson, the uncle of Oscar Grant, speaks during a Juneteenth rally in Downtown Oakland on June 19, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“It’s a very little small price for us to pay, to continue to stand and protest and seek the justice that Oscar was simply trying to get when he was on that platform before he was murdered,” Cephus Johnson said.

He said his hope is that this move by the attorney general will provide momentum for two police reform bills that are currently being considered by the Legislature; SB2, which would create a decertification process for police officers, and SB16 which would expand police transparency requirements.

Oscar Grant’s mother Wanda Johnson said she hopes that her family’s years-long struggle for justice and the DOJ review will provide hope to other families who have lost loved ones to police violence.

“Nothing can bring my son back,” she said, “but my family sure can help other families.”

Copyright 2021 KQED