Saturday, July 17, 2010

Another Death at an Oakland BART Station

A man was shot and killed this morning by Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) and Oakland police officers near the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland, California.  If this rings a bell with you, you're not crazy -- just over a week ago a former BART officer was found guilty of manslaughter in the shooting death of a man at the Fruitvale station on New Years Day, 2009.  That conviction -- or more specifically the conviction on manslaughter rather than murder -- spurred protests and looting in Oakland.

On the one hand, these two shootings have nothing to do with each other.  The officers involved are different.  The people shot are different.  The circumstances of the shootings are different.  The only connection is one of coincidence -- both of these incidents happened near the same station.

On the other hand, in terms of impact these two shootings have everything to do with each other.  The coincidence of location means that today's shooting immediately brings to mind the earlier incident and the recent trial.  An officer involved shooting in Oakland, California does not merit national headlines as a general rule.  It is the similarities between the two cases, as superficial as they may be, that get CNN involved.

There is no reason, at least from the initial media reports, to believe that there was anything suspect about the circumstances surrounding today's shooting.  The same could not be said about the shooting in 2009.  But our minds have a funny way of categorizing things.  The 2009 shooting is filed in our memories under any number of categories you might expect --  police shootings, police brutality, riots, protests -- but also under some that aren't nearly as helpful, such as: Fruitvale, BART and Oakland Police. Today's shooting may only share those last three labels with the one in 2009, but because we are opening the "file drawer" where both reside, both come out and their import can become confused.

The general public, furthermore, are not the only ones making these connections.
While no police officer wants to shoot and kill a suspect under any circumstances, there is, perhaps, no worse nightmare for an officer in Oakland, California than to shoot and kill a suspect near the Fruitvale BART station, especially this week.  Whatever emotions or reactions a shooting would cause to begin with are compounded because the officers' minds immediately and involuntarily make the connection.  The natural questions (whether acknowledged or not) an officer might ask of himself about whether a shooting was necessary or justified are complicated by the fact that, because of the links between the two cases, on some level our minds do not believe a shooting at the Fruitvale station can ever be justified no matter the circumstances.  Add to that the fact that the officers involved know that the public is making those same connections, and it makes a stressful situation that much worse.

There are plenty of investigations going on about today's shooting, as there should be.  Hopefully, in time, we will know for sure whether it could have been avoided or not.  It might help keep tensions in the community down and police officer's mental health in tact if we all took a deep breath and reminded ourselves that whether this was a justified shooting or not has nothing, no matter what our minds tell us, to do with the fact that it happened near Fruitvale.  Coincidences are complicated, but sometimes they really are just coincidences.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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