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 was liable.

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 remember her.

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.

Originally Published February 20, 2002 in URBANVIEW Newspaper, Oakland, CA