Dispatches from the Creation Wars

So after looking at the videos several times, I have to dissent from the chorus calling for the head of Johannes Mehserle, the cop who shot and killed Oscar Grant at an Oakland BART station two weeks ago.

Mehserle’s body language after he fires the shot to me indicates panic and confusion, not satisfaction at having just carried out a deliberate execution, as some local politicians have portrayed it. I find the explanation that Mehserle thought he he had grabbed his taser to be not only plausible, but likely.

That doesn’t mean Mehserle should get off. He’s clearly at fault. Whatever line of work he finds next, a portion of his paycheck should go to Oscar Grant’s family for the rest of Mehserle’s life. That should probably go for the people who trained him, too (though that isn’t going to happen). Moreover, Mehserle should never wear a badge again. Oscar Grant’s death will either haunt him for the rest of his life, or it won’t. In either case, it disqualifies him from being a cop. If it’s determined that there was no reason for Mehserle to draw his taser (Grant appears to be handcuffed and on his stomach in the videos), then he’s guilty of excessive force, and a manslaughter charge might be appropriate.

The police should be held to a higher standard than those of us without a badge. As Glenn Reynolds points out in the New York Post today, the courts unfortunately seem to hold them to a lower one. The doctrine of qualified immunity, which affords police officers (and other government employees) protection from negligence not afforded to those of us who don’t get a government paycheck, is another example.

That said, there seems to be a mob-fueled rush to pin a murder charge on this guy. Given the videos, it just doesn’t seem warranted to me. Speaking as a journalist who has reported on plenty of aggravating stories where bad cops got off scot-free, Mehserle shouldn’t have to suffer the accumulated anger of all of those stories. He should be charged for what he did, nothing more.

At the same time, I’d pose this question to the Mehserle defenders I’ve seen on police forums and bulletin boards: I’m sympathetic to the argument that in the heat of the moment, Mehserle inadvertently reached for the wrong weapon. But Mehserle had training. He had other cops there backing him up. If we’re going to be sympathetic to him, where’s the sympathy for people like Cory Maye or Ryan Frederick?

Why should we assume good intentions when a cop with training, wide awake and conscious, with other cops all around him makes a mistake that ends with a fatality, but assume the worst when a civilian is awoken by the sound of police breaking into his home, and in the heat of the moment, fires a gun after mistaking them for criminal intruders?

Seems to me you can’t simultaneously argue that trained police officers should be forgiven for nervous mistakes made in the heat of the moment, but ordinary people should be expected to show impeccable judgment and restraint, even under unimaginably volatile and confrontational circumstances.