THESE MEAN STREETS
While the upcoming Riders trial is getting
all the press attention, a second…and possibly more damaging…Oakland police case
is making its way through federal district court across the bay in San Francisco
with no fanfare at all.
In January of last year, Oakland policeman Willie Wilkins was shot and killed by two rookie fellow officers, Tim Scarrott and Andrew Koponen. Wilkins was doing plainclothes, undercover work in East Oakland when he attempted to arrest a stolen car suspect. Scarrott and Koponen saw Wilkins with his gun drawn and, apparently thinking he was a criminal rather than a cop, fired at him at least 11 times (see "Tracking The Wilkins Shooting").
Wilkins’ widow and his parents later filed a federal civil rights
violation lawsuit against the City of Oakland and the two cops. Jury trial is tentatively
scheduled to begin in late October. The Wilkins family is being represented by the
Johnnie Cochran Law Firm, while Todd Boley of Erickson, Beasley, Hewitt & Wilson
in Oakland is assisting the City Attorney’s office in its defense.
But it will be a surprise if a trial actually takes place.
It would be tempting for Oakland law enforcement officials to argue
that Wilkins, Scarrott and Koponen all followed proper police procedure, and Wilkins’
death was simply a tragic acciddent. However, to do so might lead the City open to
the argument that the police procedures themselves were flawed, and therefore Oakland
City officials could have concluded that Scarrott and Koponen acted
improperly, as the City concluded in the Riders case. However, early on, the City
decided to close ranks around the rookie officers.
That leaves only one avenue open…for the City to claim that Willie
Wilkins caused his own death by failing to properly identify himself as a police
officer. Unidentified Oakland police officials floated that idea last spring, telling
The Chronicle that "Wilkins never identified himself because he believed
[Scarrott and Koponen] were helping [him] to arrest [the suspect]." Without
going into detail, the Oakland City Attorney’s office also blamed Wilkins for his
own death in the City’s filed answer to the Wilkins lawsuit.
But court papers and anonymous newspaper quotes are one thing.
Trashing Wilkins in open court is another. For starters, police officials would have
to explain how they know what Wilkins was thinking just before he was shot. So far,
the City has given no indication that Wilkins ever gave a statement before he died.
More imporantly, a blame-Wilkins trial strategy would not sit well
with other Oakland police officers, many of whom consider him a fallen hero.
My guess is that this one will settle, and settle big.
* * *
Last Saturday morning, the following email
came from an anonymous reader: "Next week, please explain to unenlightened readers
like me how the fatal hit and run of a female and a separate incident of several
gunshot wounds to the same ‘Folk’ (or dude) constitutes nothing more than a "Major
annoyance." (This weekend.) Yeah, it also made the Oakland T.V. ‘News.’ All
related to the Oakland Sideshow. … I am eagerly awaiting your answer in your next
column. " The reference was to a recent column I wrote that mentioned the sideshows.
Later that afternoon, I got a tcall from one of my daughter, upset,
saying that a good friend of hers, an Oakland high schoolmate, U’Kendra Johnson,
had died this weekend in an auto accident. She said if I saw her picture, I’d probably
It wasn’t until the papers came out on Sunday morning that I put
the two together. Oakland police were blaming the death of U’Kendra Johnson on sideshow
activity. And in reaction, Mayor Brown called for emergency legislation to allow
the city to impound the automobiles of drivers "involved in sideshows."
I can’t answer any of that right now, because I don’t have enough information.
I have been both a parent and a reporter for many years. In both
professions, you learn that the first news is not always the most accurate news.
You learn not to decide the "what should we do now?" before you have determined
the "what happened" and the "why."
This week, I am going to join my family and my community in mourning
the death of a child of this city.
After that, I’ll try to find out why it happened.