Columns written for the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper, Berkeley, CA
Berkeley Daily Planet




April 16, 2009

Interesting, isn’t it, what catches the interest of our local news commentators, and what does not.

Last week, we talked about how four separate local newspaper columns and their five columnists—Phil Matier and Andrew Ross of the San Francisco Chronicle’s Matier & Ross column, Chip Johnson of the Chronicle, Tammerlin Drummond of the Contra Costa Times and the Oakland Tribune, and Robert Gammon of the East Bay Express—all found time to focus on the actions and allegations of inactions of Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums on the day of the March 21st MacArthur shootings, as well as the disinvitation of Mr. Dellums to the police memorial that followed.

Of course, Mr. Dellums had no command responsibilities over the March 21st MacArthur events, nor should he have. This was a police operation.

So one hopes that now they have taken what has become the obligatory run at the mayor, the five local columnists will use their considerable influence to help get answered two of the most important questions that surround the March 21st events: who gave the orders for the SWAT officers to storm the 74th Avenue apartment where Lovelle Mixon was hiding and why was that order given? It is those questions which lead to the most important question of that day, which is not what did Dellums do, but what caused the deaths of the two SWAT officers in the apartment shootout.

And if you are satisfied with the answer was that it was Mr. Mixon who caused their deaths, cased closed, you are missing the point.

According to police and media accounts, Mr. Mixon shot and killed two Oakland police motorcycle officers—Mark Dunakin and John Hege—following a traffic stop near 74th Avenue and MacArthur. Mr. Mixon then fled to an apartment on 74th Avenue, where police were led two hours later following a citizen’s tip. SWAT team members forcibly entered the apartment and in the ensuing gunbattle two of them—Dan Sakai and Erv Romans—were shot and killed by Mr. Mixon, who had hidden himself in a closet. Mr. Mixon himself was killed by police gunfire.

What is missing from this narrative are the exact circumstances at the 74th Avenue apartment in the period immediately before the SWAT team broke in. The SWAT team took what is unquestionably the most dangerous tack in attempting to apprehend Mr. Mixon, entering an enclosed space occupied by an armed and dangerous suspect who they believed had already shot and killed two police officers, and without the team knowing either the layout of the space or any of the circumstances inside. If there was a probability—or even strong possibility—that Mr. Mixon would have escaped without that immediate entry, or if Mr. Mixon posed some clear and immediate mortal danger to police or civilians at the time the SWAT team surrounded the apartment, then one could make the reasonable argument that entering the apartment as the SWAT team did was tragic, but necessary.

But without knowing the details of what the officers knew or suspected in the moments before the apartment entry, it is impossible to say whether the forced entry decision was justified, or whether there was an alternative strategy that might have reasonably led to capturing—or, if necessary, killing—Mr. Mixon without the same danger to the SWAT officers.

There is also the question of whether or not the police action itself in entering the apartment posed a danger to civilians in the vicinity, in particular any individuals who may have been present in the other apartments in the building in which the two officers and Mr. Mixon were killed. We know that an uninvolved civilian, Mr. Mixon’s sister Reynete, was in the apartment at the time and was slightly injured by the concussion grenades thrown by the officers. As for the other tenants, was any attempt made by police to evacuate the building prior to the entry? Would such an attempt have jeopardized the police action, alerting Mr. Mixon to the police presence, or was it simply the case that the commander in charge on the scene—whoever that might have been—did not take into account any possible civilian casualties? Again, we do not have the information necessary to make any judgment.

From an article by Associated Press writer Paul Elias published in the Oakland Tribune, we learned this week that the Oakland Police Department plans to conduct an internal investigation of the March 21st MacArthur shootings, to “include a review by outside SWAT experts.” ("SWAT Tactics Reviewed After Local Rampage")

That is commendable, but not nearly enough. In the past, such internal investigations have sometimes served to obscure public scrutiny of certain actions of the Oakland Police Department, rather than to enhance it.

In this instance, for example, the AP’s Mr. Elias writes in the Tribune that “Police officials have said the SWAT team entered the apartment to clear and search it, but precisely what prompted their decision is unclear. The department turned down requests to interview a SWAT team commander and [Acting] Police Chief Howard Jordan. ‘The whole incident is still under investigation and OPD is not releasing any details or reports,’ police spokesman Jeff Thomason said in an April 2 e-mail. ‘This is to protect the integrity of the investigation until it can be completed.’”

It should be noted that Mr. Jordan held two press briefings in the immediate aftermath of the March 21st shootings, but now has chosen to avoid the press on the issue at precisely the point that more difficult questions are being asked.

It is certainly proper for the police department to keep its internal investigations closed-door affairs, and OPD has had a long habit of making spokespersons available when they feel it important, but then refusing media access when tough or embarrassing questions might be asked. But that does not mean that the Oakland public has no alternative to finding out the details—and the truth—about March 21st.

One alternative would be in the form of a public hearing and investigation of the March 21st shootings by the Public Safety Committee of the Oakland City Council. Several Councilmembers have recently been making much noise about asserting their oversight roles in city government. Now is the chance for them to show if this was merely political rhetoric to bring down Mayor Dellums, or if they are serious about taking on more of this responsibility, even on difficult ground.

For a long time Councilmember Larry Reid, the chair of Council Public Safety, has identified himself as a champion of the police force. We have no reason to doubt his sincerity, although we have often wondered at his committee’s lack of interest in looking into many of Oakland’s pressing public safety issues. But we can think of no better way for Mr. Reid to demonstrate his support for Oakland police officers than for him to lead his committee into an investigation into whether the two SWAT officers, Mr. Sakai and Mr. Romans, lost their lives in the apartment on 74th Avenue because there was no reasonable alternative to storming the apartment, or whether it was either caused by an improper command decision, a lack of proper procedures or training, or a lack of proper command. The answers to those questions will not bring back the two officers, but it might force a change in police department policy or personnel that could prevent other officers in the future from being hurt or killed.

If Oakland is sincere in honoring the four fallen officers of March 21st as heroes, then we can honor their memories best by searching for and determining the truth about how and why they died, no matter what dark corners of city policy and personnel that search might take us.
If the Council’s Public Safety Committee is not willing or able to step in and help determine why four Oakland police officers lost their lives on March 21st, what is that committee’s relevance to the public safety of this city?

And, of course, the field is certainly open for Mr. Matier and Mr. Ross and Mr. Johnson and Ms. Drummond and Mr. Gammon to turn their powerful attention to these questions, as well. This is one time when the howling of the dogs in the neighborhood’s yards would seem to be appropriate.

Meanwhile, on an entirely different matter…

Last week, the East Bay Express published a cover story on Bayview newspaper and KPFA reporter JR (Cleveland Valrey Jr.). The article was—to put it most succinctly—unflattering. Mr. Valrey is a public figure open to criticism, and I have criticized him myself in this column, at least once. He has several forums with which to answer, and can answer the Express’ criticism for himself.

My particular concern, however, is with the article’s title, “JR Valrey Is An Agent Provocateur.”

That title has a particular and definite meaning, listed in my Webster’s New World College Dictionary as “a person hired to join a labor union, political party, etc. in order to incite its members to actions that will make them or their organization liable to penalty.” During the Movement years of the 60’s and 70’s, the federal government used such “agents provocateur” to infiltrate Movement organizations, either getting gullible members jailed or stirring up animosities that ended up in shootings and deaths between various organizations. Many people believe that the old Black Panther Party was destroyed by the use of such tactics. It is, therefore, both a dangerous and serious charge to make.

Nowhere in the Express article on Mr. Valrey is there any hint or indication that the article’s author, Benjamin Taylor, believes that Mr. Valrey has been hired by the government to cause havoc in the Bay Area progressive movement, and no proof or allegation appears. The term “agent provocateur” itself, in fact, does not appear in the body of the article, only in the headline. One can only surmise that whoever wrote the headline was only making a play on the fact that Mr. Valrey is “provocative” in his reporting, and that no other implication should be attached. If that is true, our friends at the Express ought to clarify and correct. On the other hand, if it is the paper’s belief that Mr. Valrey is a government informant and agent, they need to produce the evidence on which they hold that belief.

As I said, calling someone an “agent provocateur” is a deeply serious charge, and ought to be done only if the charger believes it to be true, and can back it up with proof.

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