California's Attorney General Discusses Oscar Grant Case : On Our Watch Less than six weeks after On Our Watch published an episode examining the shooting and death of Oscar Grant, California's Attorney General Rob Bonta opened an external investigation into the 12-year-old case. In a wide-ranging interview with On Our Watch's Sukey Lewis, Bonta talks about California's systemic issues in policing, his efforts at addressing them and says the Oscar Grant case remains unresolved. We also look at new police reforms promising that cops who commit serious misconduct can be stripped of their badges.

Update: Oscar Grant and the Attorney General

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1042430689/1042550192" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

(CROSSTALK)

SUKEY LEWIS, HOST:

I'm Sukey Lewis of ON OUR WATCH, an investigative podcast from KQED and NPR. We're back because we wanted to tell you about some big developments, both in the stories we covered in the podcast and in policing here in California. We also got the top cop in the state, the attorney general, to sit down with us, talk about our findings and his thoughts on police accountability.

ROB BONTA: We need to rebuild trust between law enforcement and our communities.

LEWIS: But first, let's pick up where we ended our season. The Alameda County district attorney had reopened an investigation into former transit cop Anthony Pirone...

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: He looked like a military guy.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Looked like a Marine, to me, like an ex-Marine or something.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I just remember - ball of anger.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: This crazy cop had my attention.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: That's how you'd describe him?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yeah.

LEWIS: ...The officer who held down 22-year-old Oscar Grant moments before he was shot and killed by another cop at the Fruitvale BART Station in 2009. Ultimately, the DA, Nancy O'Malley, said she condemned Pirone's conduct...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NANCY O'MALLEY: ...condemn Pirone's conduct, but we cannot charge him with murder or any other crime.

LEWIS: After so many years, to have the DA reopen the case just to close it was really heartbreaking for Oscar Grant's mother, Reverend Wanda Johnson.

WANDA JOHNSON: She shouldn't have got up and did a political stunt, you know, to make her look good or get a ding on her belt because - I'm a concerned district attorney, so I'm going to reopen the case, and I'm going to - don't appease me, you know, and don't appease my family.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LEWIS: It seemed like the case was closed. But then a little less than six weeks after our episode published, there was a new development in the 12-year-old case.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The state attorney general's office says it is going to review the Oscar Grant case. It will look into the conduct of now former BART Police Officer Anthony Pirone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Anthony Pirone did not shoot Grant, and the Alameda County District Attorney's Office had released a statement saying no criminal charges would be filed against him. But now the...

LEWIS: The attorney general of California, a man named Rob Bonta, said his office was going to take a new look at this case to see if Anthony Pirone should be charged with a crime.

JOHN BURRIS: It's a real challenge for the attorney general, I think

LEWIS: That's longtime civil rights attorney John Burris, who says the attorney general will face many of the same challenges that the DA ran into - the high bar for murder charges and the passage of time.

BURRIS: And to me, it's like a sore that has not healed in that - and I'm sure it feels that way for the family, but it feels that way for me, too, as a lawyer who was a strong advocate. I represented all the kids in there and also their family, as well. I knew what Pirone had done, and I knew that Pirone, in and of himself, was culpable and should've been prosecuted.

JOHNSON: He should have been charged 12 years ago, and I'm grateful that now the attorney general's looking into it.

LEWIS: Pirone's lawyer didn't respond to requests for comment.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LEWIS: Before he was appointed attorney general, Rob Bonta was a lawmaker representing Alameda County.

BONTA: For it to happen right in my assembly district on the platform that I took regularly to get to work for a decade was personal to me. The wound is still open for many community members, for family members, for those who knew and loved Oscar Grant and his family. And so it's - it, you know - it is a case of huge import that hasn't been completely resolved and continues to cause pain in the community, in the state and in the nation.

LEWIS: Bonta said he couldn't comment further on the Oscar Grant investigation since it's ongoing, but he agreed to sit down and answer some other questions we had about what we'd found in our reporting.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BONTA: Hi there. Sorry I'm late. Good to see you.

LEWIS: No worries. Hi, Attorney General Bonta.

BONTA: Good morning.

LEWIS: Thank you so much for making the time. We really appreciate it.

Rob Bonta was a lawmaker for years, but he's pretty new to this job. Just to give you a sense of the political power and importance of this role, he was appointed in April to replace Xavier Becerra, who left to join President Joe Biden's Cabinet as the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. And before Becerra, the AG was Kamala Harris, who, of course, is now the vice president of the United States. And the AG has a special role. It's part of their job to oversee policing agencies and step in and investigate police when they fail to investigate themselves.

BONTA: We need to rebuild that trust. That's the basis of it. And without accountability, you can't have trust. So everywhere and anywhere we can infuse our system with more accountability, more oversight, more transparency to build more trust, we should.

LEWIS: Do you think that there - is there a broader way to deal with a patchwork system, like these hundreds of different law enforcement agencies in California who have different ways of implementing and interpreting the policies and have different power structures and different interests? Like, do we need kind of a more, like, this-is-the-way-it's-done kind of rulebook for cities and counties across California so that there's more standardization and more fairness, both for the public and for officers?

BONTA: Well, let me first say, you know, this is the power of your work, of investigative journalism, of uncovering inequities, disparities, differences. This patchwork is maybe not something that everyone focused on and - or perhaps, if they did, not understanding all of its consequences. And, you know, and so raising the question is super important. There's different ways to do that, of course. You know, putting on my legislative hat that I wore for nine years, the Legislature can create some ground rules here. We, as the Department of Justice that is very interested in raising up to the best practice, to the highest standard, would benefit everyone.

LEWIS: Bonta says part of what motivates him as an attorney general are his experiences as a Filipino immigrant, the son of activists, who was brought to this country as a baby.

BONTA: And I see others that have those shared experiences, and it hurts me to see the unfairness, and it inspires me to do better and to do more to help address those wrongs and create more justice where there's injustice.

LEWIS: And so I wanted to bring up one thing that we found in reading through hundreds, if not thousands, of these case files involving, you know, use-of-force investigations, officer-involved shootings. We found that rarely, if ever, were questions of racial bias asked. Like, why did you stop this person? And I'm just wondering, like, can we fix the racist outcomes that we see without beginning to address an accountability system that seems to ignore those questions of racial bias in the mind of officers?

BONTA: You know, it's a really interesting and challenging question at the same time. And this is something that I have personal experience with as a young attorney representing a client that was suing the California Highway Patrol for racial profiling and having interviewed - you know, deposed multiple CHP officers. It will be rare, if ever, that a individual who is making a decision based on race either recognizes it as a motivating factor, admits it as a motivating factor or states that that is a motivating factor. I mean, that's the whole premise of implicit bias. It's unknown to the person who is biased. And so that's why the disparate outcomes are really important. The data's important.

LEWIS: And then there was a case that we reported on that was really - it was a really heartbreaking and difficult case to report. And it happened, you know, in Salinas, where these police officers repeatedly failed to protect these two girls with disabilities in this farmworker family who were sexually exploited. And I really wanted to ask you about this case because I know we hear a lot about overpolicing of certain communities, but do you think this is an example of underpolicing? And what does that do to undermine trust?

BONTA: It's important that law enforcement officers and, you know, any officials with duties and obligations carry those out, and that includes the child abuse and neglect reporting law where law enforcement are mandated reporters when it comes to the suspected sexual assault of children. They need to fulfill that obligation.

LEWIS: And can you comment on the fact that this officer, who lied to kind of avoid - at least that was the finding of the internal investigation - to avoid taking a report about a statutory rape and then was immediately rehired by a neighboring town? What does that say about our current system that allows officers who do break policy in significant ways to continue to work as police officers in the state of California?

BONTA: That's been a problem that has existed for too long, and it's beyond time that California change that. There's 46 other states that already have decertification policies. California does not. It's long past time that we had a decertification process in California. If a police officer is engaged in a serious level of misconduct, they should not have the opportunity to show up in the town next door or any part of the state where they can visit the same type of misconduct on another innocent member of the public. That's wrong. We know that's wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LEWIS: Last year, when Bonta was still in the Legislature, he co-authored a bill to address this. And last year, it didn't pass. But Bonta's co-author, state Senator Steven Bradford, put it forward again this year with some tweaks as Senate Bill 2.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVEN BRADFORD: This bill creates a statewide process to revoke the certification of an officer after the conviction of a serious crime or termination from employment due to misconduct.

LEWIS: It would mean cops like officer William Yetter in Salinas or the officers we found who committed sexual misconduct on duty couldn't just move to a new department.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRADFORD: ...Trying to do with this measure is make sure that we end the wash-rinse-and-repeat cycle of some of these bad officers that we know all exist here in California and across this country.

LEWIS: A handful of police unions and sheriffs' groups came out against the bill. On the other side, among the people who called in to support the bill, there were some familiar voices, like Oscar Grant's uncle, Bobby, and...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICK PEREZ: Yes, this is Rick Perez, father of...

LEWIS: The father of 24-year-old Pedie Perez, who was unarmed when he was shot and killed outside a liquor store.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PEREZ: Murdered by Richmond Police Department on September 14, 2014. I'm in strong support of the Senate Bill 2.

LEWIS: After months of hearings, debate and amendments, in early September, the Legislature held a vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Ayes - 28; noes - nine. The assembly amendment...

LEWIS: And it passed. All it needed now was the governor's signature.

Another bill also headed to the governor's desk this September, one that would open up even more police records to let the public see inside racial bias investigations or get records on an officer...

NANCY SKINNER: Who've engaged in biased or discriminatory behavior, conducted unlawful arrests or searches or used excessive or unreasonable force.

LEWIS: That's the bill's author, state Senator Nancy Skinner. Senate Bill 16 would also close a huge loophole that we found in our reporting.

SKINNER: What we found after 1421 is that an officer would quit their job as soon as they were accused of a misconduct that could have been exposed, and then there was no record that followed them.

LEWIS: Oftentimes, the agency wouldn't complete the investigation. They'd just drop it.

SKINNER: So they could go and apply to another agency without that record trail. So we built into SB-16 that any of these categories of misconduct, if - you have to open the investigation, and you have to maintain a record, even if the officer quits. Their reputation must follow them.

LEWIS: And then are you fairly confident that police are able to police themselves?

SKINNER: Well, the benefit of police records bills, like my 1421 and SB-16, is we won't rely just on the police to police themselves. We've given - we've empowered the public to be able to help police the police.

LEWIS: On September 30, California's governor, Gavin Newsom, signed SB-2 and SB-16 into law.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GAVIN NEWSOM: It's not just about what's on the surface; it's what lies beneath the surface that has to be addressed. And so we're here...

LEWIS: Standing next to Newsom were the family members of people killed by police, lawmakers and the attorney general.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NEWSOM: And it is critical that we have our attorney general here, who will be instrumental in advancing that cause. With that, let me quickly sign these bills and, of course, avail ourselves to any questions.

LEWIS: The day Newsom signed these bills into law was also the three-year anniversary of the day his predecessor signed SB-1421 into effect, the three-year anniversary of the day an arrest in Rio Vista went sideways, and it would have been the 32nd birthday of Pedie Perez if he hadn't been shot and killed by police.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LEWIS: On January 1, 2022, a whole new pile of police documents that haven't been seen will be unsealed. In the meantime, I'll be getting ready to ask for them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LEWIS: Today's episode was produced by me, Nina Sparling, Justine Yan and Sandhya Dirks. It was edited by senior supervising producer Nicole Beemsterboer. Ramtin Arablouei composed the music for today's show, and it was engineered by Andy Huether. I'm Sukey Lewis. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.