When police officers cross the line, will their fellow officers defend them? Or are some police officers able to objectively analyze a situation and hold even their fellow officers accountable for bad decisions?
It’s a question we posed to Dana Smyser, who served more than 25 years with the Minneapolis Police Department, where he received several awards and commendations for his work, by asking for his honest review of the recently released film “Fruitvale Station.”
Before joining the Minneapolis Police Department, Smyser spent three years at a suburban police department. In addition to spending years working on the streets of Minneapolis, Smyser investigated sex crimes, robberies, homicides, financial crimes and major crimes, was a lieutenant/supervisor for both patrol and drug functions. Now retired, Smyser spent the last 12 years at the MPD working as a detective supervisor.
After 22-year-old Oscar Grant III was killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officer on New Year’s Day 2009, some cast the Oakland, Calif. native as a saint who was working to get his life in order, while others cast him as a drug-dealing monster. In order to restore the “humanity” to Grant’s life, fellow Oakland native Ryan Coogler made a film detailing Grant’s last day, “Fruitvale Station.”
In order to tell Grant’s story as accurately as possible, Coogler used public records and news articles and talked to Grant’s family to piece together the events that happened that fateful day. While Coogler admits he did take creative license with some of the characters and scenes in the film, he says he stayed as true as possible to the truth in the movie’s most crucial scene — the one in which Grant is fatally shot by BART officer James Mehserle.
Coogler’s independent film “Fruitvale Station” won awards at the Sundance and Cannes film festivals, and has sparked discussions not just in the American public, but among police officers themselves about officer-involved shootings, police brutality and the use of excessive force.
MPN: What did you think of the movie?
Dana Smyser: It was a good movie, you know, it was well done. I would like to have seen a presentation from the cops’ perspective, but yeah it doesn’t show well for the police response. I’ve got a feeling the reason for the police intervention and what the police encountered [at Fruitvale Station] was underplayed. Obviously if things went down exactly as presented, the police were in the wrong and the officers involved deserved further scrutiny.
Something happened that shouldn’t have happened. I would like to have seen the other side of what was going on. It was a tragic thing. It’s horrible — [Grant’s daughter Tatiana] has to grow up without a father, but everybody suffers after something like this, including the cop [Mehserle] who shot the guy, since his motivation to join the force was likely to make the world a better place.
My biggest thing is I have a hard time believing the actual shooting event was accurately depicted in the movie. It may have been told that way from the people on the train or the people he was drinking with all night. But they didn’t show the drinking. They just show Grant meeting his friends on the train and then on their way back home. But it probably wasn’t that tame. The cops were heavy handed because they were probably outnumbered — but I’m just guessing. If you go by the movie, the cops were careless and caused the tragic death of a young man who may or may not have been getting his shit together.
MPN: What was your reaction when you heard Officer Johannes Mehserle, who shot and killed Grant, say it was an accident?
DS: I have no doubt about an accidental shooting.
After Tasers were phased in, a lot of cops used to carry them near their gun. And the way you arrange stuff on a policeman’s belt really has a lot to do with in what order you would reach for things and how often you use it.
I’m not sure how long BART officers had Tasers or how much Taser training the officer had, but I don’t think he would deliberately shoot an innocent person on the ground. That’s something you would see in the 30s, 40s, 50s, not today.
I’m in no way trying to make excuses for the officer. If it happened as presented in that film, it was totally out of line.
MPN: What are your thoughts about the reaction from the bystanders on the train?
DS: From a police standpoint, having been involved in near-riot situations, the behavior of the crowd probably wasn’t that docile, and I imagine a lot of the stuff the prosecution used came from what the people recorded on their cell phones. The problem with using that footage is, it’s like taking parts of conversation out of context — you lose a lot of the contextual things that brought stuff about.
MPN: Did you think the police were overly aggressive toward Grant and the others?
DS: Police deal with behavior — they don’t just say ‘Oh I’ll just go screw with someone today.’
To be honest when you wind up in that part of town with that type of group you expect profanity and mouthiness. In some cases they are just posturing and others are just venting. We used to have a rule on the street: you take three motherf****s from a guy and then he goes to jail.
As presented in the movie, the police behavior was over the top inappropriate. Based on my personal experience in similar types of situations, I find it hard to believe the situation is accurately depicted, which is self-defense on my part. What they showed was the cops overreacting and someone screwed up royally. But whether you agree or not with the jury, like in the Trayvon Martin case, someone didn’t have to die.
MPN: How would you respond to those who have accused Mehserle or other officers of racist biases or racial profiling, especially in the wake of the racist comments made by several MPD officers?
DS: When someone is drunk and obnoxious, is it their true feelings or are they being stupid because they overloaded on alcohol and are in a stress situation for whatever reason? Does that necessarily reflect how they behave and act on the job? I’ve heard people say things that don’t represent how they acted on the job.
Personally I think everyone is biased whether it’s racial, cultural, class value or whatever. Obviously you don’t want people with strong racist views doing police work, but just because someone makes a mouthy crockett doesn’t mean that’s who they are all the time.
Obviously you don’t want police who are racist or biased in how they do the job, but lets face it, you recruit cops out of the human race and they have bad days and make mistakes. It’s different if you work at a hardware store and drop something or drill a hole in the wrong wall. A lot of what police do is with weapons and heavy equipment and their accidents have more consequences. Unfortunately when you’re dealing with weapons and things that injure people, you can get hurt sometimes.
MPN: For those who say the movie proves that police brutality is an epidemic in the U.S., what would you say to them?
DS: I guess I’m really not sure what to say to those people. Some people assume and come in with their own bias that the police were just picking on these people. The reaction of [Grant] and his friends to the police seemed excessive. Whether it was a dramatic license taken by the filmmaker or just one perspective of the night’s events, I would liked to have seen how the cop spent his previous few days, you know? What is he dealing with? Other scenarios he may have dealt with on the transit system earlier that day.
Obviously he wasn’t thinking, ‘Let’s go arrest and shoot some Black people today.’ I realize some people believe that and think that cops are prejudice, but we all have our own sociocultural background and we all have our biases. The hard thing with policing is to see things in a broader perspective. You can still go home and feel how you feel but you don’t want to take things into how you perform your job.
Policing has changed over the years. I think you tend to see more tolerance for police when the crime rate is high and people are sick of criminal behavior verses when the crime rate is low. The media makes up more stuff, slants the news, trying to stir up more stuff. It’s a self-propagating thing.
In most cases cops don’t intend to kill people. Accidents happen — they just did one line at the end of the movie saying the cop claimed that he thought his handgun was his taser. I assume that would be the truth. The people who made the movie obviously didn’t. [Grant’s] friends and family don’t either.
MPN: Would you recommend this movie to other police officers and those who work in law enforcement?
DS: I don’t know if I would say “recommend.” I could see it being beneficial because there are people whose life experiences are different from the main character. People never experienced that this is real life with all the drugs, profanity, fighting, going in and out of jail, the whole family structures — that’s reality for a lot of people. It doesn’t take long to realize that when you’re a police officer on the street because that’s what you deal with daily.
The movie showed a minor dustup on the trains — a brief fight and the combating groups separated. And it’s not clear in the movie why the police were there. Did someone complain or did they just happen to be there?
Unless people have weapons or serious injuries, police separate the parties and de-escalate the situation. But the situation had already de-escalated, so the movie shows a totally heavy handed over the top intervention by the police: slamming them down, arresting them. In my experience it’s hard to believe this was an accurate depiction.
I guess the police response as depicted seemed more like you would see out of the early 1960s or early 1970s, not something I would expect to see today.