Oakland school cop comes forward as a whistleblower

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Family and friends of Raheim Brown protested outside Oakland School Police Department headquarters last year.
GUARDIAN FILE PHOTO BY YAEL CHANOFF

Two years after his involvement in a police shooting that took the life of a 20-year-old African American man, an Oakland School Police Department officer has come forward as a “whistleblower” in sworn testimony, making allegations of unethical behavior within a department that is already under the scrutiny of federal investigators.

In a deposition delivered earlier this month as part of a civil suit, police Sergeant Jonathan Bellusa gave a detailed account of what transpired just before his patrol partner, Sgt. Barhin Bhatt, fired several rounds and killed Raheim Brown as the youth was positioned in the passenger’s seat of a car outside a high school dance in January of 2011.

Bellusa gave testimony that in the months that followed, he came under retaliatory pressure from within the department and was “uncomfortable” with various aspects of how the investigation unfolded.

An unedited, uncertified transcript of Bellusa’s deposition, which contains some grammatical and punctuation errors because it was transcribed by an automated system, was made public Feb. 28 by a group of activists organized under a project called “Against Hired Guns.” The group sent a detailed summary and analysis of the deposition, as well as the unedited transcript, to reporters. The activists also posted the contents on a website, againsthiredguns.wordpress.com.

Asked who is behind Against Hired Guns, spokesperson Cat Brooks said they are Oakland activists “who have been doing this work either together on campaigns, or separately inside of our own groups, that see strength in numbers rather than apart. We in general are tired of having flashpoint reactions to police corruption or violence, and are interested in bringing as many people or groups together as possible to have a sustained campaign that is focused on eradicating police violence.”

Bellusa is currently on leave from employment at the Oakland school police department, and the Guardian was unable to reach him by phone on the number listed on the OUSD website. “He’s been gone for quite awhile,” OUSD spokesperson Troy Flint told the Guardian when reached by phone. Asked to comment on the myriad allegations raised in Bellusa’s testimony, Flint said, “We're going to refrain from comment until we've seen the actual suit.”

The deposition was conducted by Attorney Adante Pointer of the Law Offices of John Burris, in connection with a civil rights suit that is being filed against OUSD by Brown’s mother, Lori Davis. Reached by phone, Pointer confirmed that he had taken Bellusa’s deposition several weeks ago, and was surprised that its contents had been made public, since it “is not complete yet.” He added, “I’m thinking to myself, who put that out there?” As of press time, Pointer had not returned a follow up phone call.

Brooks declined to answer questions about how the activists obtained a copy of the uncertified transcript.

Allegations of retaliation for whistleblowing

Roughly a month after the shooting incident, Bellusa said in his deposition, former OUSD Police Chief Pete Sarna let out “a boisterous yell with his [fist] up in the air” and seemed “excited” that “we as a department don't have to worry about anything.” According to Bellusa’s testimony, Sarna had just received word that his “friend” Pete Peterson had “agreed to do the investigation” of the fatal shooting of Brown.

Asked if he felt pressured by supervisors to make statements consistent with Bhatt’s account of the shooting incident, Bellusa stated, “I have felt that if I gave statements that went against the district that I would be thrown in jail for perjury.”

In the months after the shooting, Bellusa testified that he filed a formal complaint alleging that Sarna drunkenly made racist remarks to an African American sergeant in July of 2011. Sarna resigned the following month.

Bellusa also testified that on an August morning in 2011, after he’d filed the complaint against Sarna for allegedly making racial slurs, he overheard a conversation between OUSD General Counsel Jacqueline Minor and Superintendent Tony Smith. “I over heard Jackie Minor… say they were not going to let John get away with this,” he stated.

In another incident, Bellusa testified that a different OUSD officer informed him that “Chief Sarna’s assistant, Jenny Wong, told a bunch of officers something like: ‘Don't worry, Sarna is going to beat this case. He’s going to fire John [Bellusa].’”

After Sarna stepped down, Bhatt was briefly appointed interim police chief, unleashing an outcry from OUSD parents outraged that an officer would be promoted to the top post after shooting and killing Brown just months before. Alameda County prosecutors had since cleared Bhatt of any wrongdoing in the shooting that resulted in Brown’s death.

In response to the backlash, Bhatt was removed and replaced with Police Chief James Williams in September of 2011. The shooting of Brown, coupled with Sarna’s alleged use of racial slurs, prompted a federal grand jury investigation into the OUSD police force last year. Bellusa noted in his testimony that he had described his experience to federal investigators.

Taken as a whole, Bellusa’s testimony renders a disturbing internal portrait of the Oakland School Police Department, which consists of about a dozen officers and operates independently of the Oakland Police Department as a division of the school district.

The alarming account raises serious questions about internal operations of the department, particularly since it is an independent force operated by the school district at a time when funding cuts have placed the public school system under tremendous budgetary pressure, resulting in recent school closures.

Allegations of corruption

A detailed summary of the transcript provided by Against Hired Guns highlights more disturbing allegations made by Bellusa in the course of his testimony. Among them:

  • Bellusa asserted that he witnessed Bhatt pour Wild Turkey into a glass while he was on duty. He also said he felt concerned about Bhatt after observing him “clean his firearm for a long period of time.”                                                                      
  • Bellusa testified that he “found out” that Sarna and Lou Silva, a former OUSD officer and current district-wide Campus Security and Safety Manager, were “sending their personal cars down to a shop on 16th Avenue… [and] were overcharging the police cars,” apparently in order to have their personal cars repaired for free or at a deep discount.
  • Bellusa testified, “I found out that he [Sarna] called another officer [and] told him [not to report] what had happened in front of the African American who is a witness to the … racial slurs.”

Officer-involved shooting

Brown was shot and killed outside a dance at Oakland’s Skyline High School on Jan. 22, 2011. He was sitting in the passenger’s seat of a Honda with a friend, Tamisha Stewart, who was in the driver’s seat. Bellusa and Bhatt pulled up behind them in an unmarked patrol car after noticing the lights of the Honda were flashing. Bhatt made his way to the driver’s window, Bellusa testified, while he flanked the rear passenger’s side of the car.

As Bhatt began a verbal exchange with Stewart, Bellusa testified that he noticed Brown was “fidgety” rather than cooperative, which he interpreted as a “red flag.” He opened the passenger door, crouched into what he described as a “catcher’s stance,” and initiated a verbal exchange with Brown. Shortly after opening the door, Bellusa said he made observations that led him to conclude that the car had been stolen.

When Pointer asked him where his hands were at that point, Bellusa stated, “They were on his lap,” according to the transcript. “Were they holding anything?” Pointer asked. “No,” Bellusa responded. “And so did you ask him to step out of the car when you're having this conversation with him?” Pointer asked. “Not at that time,” Bellusa answered. 

Bellusa said Brown then grabbed a screwdriver and stuck into the ignition of the vehicle, directing Stewart to drive. This prompted a struggle between Brown and Bellusa. According to a summary of the transcript written by the group of activists:

“Bellusa lunged into the car, grabbing [Brown] from behind as Brown was leaned over toward the ignition. …Bellusa tried to hold Brown, and then grabbed him, pulling Brown’s shirt and ripping it. Bhatt, leaning in through the driver’s window, hit Brown with his flashlight. … Brown had not yet made any aggressive move toward anyone, according to Bellusa’s description of events.”

A struggle ensued, and Bellusa testified that at one point Brown bit Bellusa’s wrist, prompting Bellusa to pull his hand away and use his “hammer fist” to strike him. Brown then grabbed the screwdriver from the car’s ignition, and “I believe that the backside of the screwdriver [was what] he used at that point to strike me in the chest,” Bellusa testified.

“As the struggle ensued and neither fighter gave in,” activists wrote, “[Brown] turned the screwdriver around and tried to make contact with Bellusa.”

According to Bellusa’s sworn testimony, “I was afraid that I was going to get stabbed in the throat clear as day.” He told his partner to shoot Brown: “I just screamed shoot him, shoot him,” he testified.

The Against Hired Guns summary describes what happened next. "As Bellusa pulled himself out of the car, two shots were quickly fired through the driver’s open window ... by Bhatt before his gun jammed. Raheim Brown, Jr. had two bullets lodged in his body. It took Sergeant Bhatt five to ten seconds to clear the chamber of his gun, during which time he said loudly: 'Fuck! Fuck!' By this time, Bellusa was out of the car and at a safe distance, he said in his deposition. When asked whether he thought Brown was still a risk after the first two shots, Bellusa replied plainly: 'No,' and said that by this point, he had his own gun out. When asked why he didn’t pull his trigger, he replied: 'Just like I said my statement with OPD, I didn't see a threat.'

‘Tell me … about the gun’ 

Bellusa explained in his deposition that he’d noticed a gun sitting in the side pocket of the vehicle during the incident, but did not alert Bhatt that the gun was there until after the shooting had occurred. When Pointer asked, “And prior to you screaming ‘shoot him, shoot him’ you hadn’t said anything related to the gun?” Bellusa responded: “No.”

Shortly after the shooting, Bellusa testified he had an interaction with Sarna, then-OUSD chief, and Smith, the OUSD superintendent. According to details included in the deposition, this conversation took place at Oakland Police Department (OPD) headquarters, after Bhatt and Bellusa had been separated, prior to any formal interview with OPD regarding the shooting.

According to Bellusa’s testimony, Smith questioned him directly. “He said specifically ‘John, tell me where the gun was. Tell me everything you can remember about the gun and what it looked like.’”

Penetrating the Thin Blue Line

An introductory statement from Against Hired Guns notes that Bellusa “will likely be considered a ‘good’ cop” for publicly airing these allegations and making an unusual break from the code of silence that typically binds police departments.

Yet the activists aren’t willing to let the sergeant off the hook so easily. Asked why they took steps to preempt release of this information, Brooks, the spokesperson for Against Hired Guns, told the Guardian, “We thought that it was important so that the debate could be framed as part of the larger context of police and violence in Oakland, as opposed to this cop has now done something good, which makes him a good cop. … He was still present the night Raheim was murdered.”

Against Hired Guns wrote in an analysis included in press materials, "It has now been over two years since Raheim’s family lost him to the violence of policing.  They have relentlessly searched for justice and still do not know exactly what happened to him. At the very least, Bellusa or any of the people or agencies he spoke with, could have explained the context of Raheim’s killing to his family members, who continue to grieve and struggle with the loss of their son, father and lover." 

The activists’ summary frames the issue in this way: “Sergeant Bellusa has now penetrated the ‘thin blue line’ that shields corrupt, abusive, violent police officers and departments. We are releasing this information as part of … a series that places the statements of Bellusa’s testimony in the larger overall context of policing in our society [and] the ‘thin blue line’ that protects officers from any consequences.”

Comments

"The only violence problem Oakland has is police violence!" Yup. Those 130 plus murders last year are proof of the homicidal police force!!! Wait they weren't committed by cops? It was primarily Black male-on-Black male? It was probably the cops who made them shoot each other and make Oakland the armed robbery capital of the country!!!

Posted by Guest on Mar. 01, 2013 @ 12:17 pm

how terrible the OPD is without ever having to personally suffer loss or injury from the out-of-control crime situation in Oakland, and the total lack of support that OPD gets from their mayor and city council.

It's the perfect white liberal hypocrisy. They'd be scared shitless if a black Oakland thug threatened them, but of course they are safe in SF and so can act all precious.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 01, 2013 @ 12:29 pm

Yeah I'd love for them to live a week in deep East Oakland. Let's see how liberal and cop-hating they are after hearing gangbanger rounds getting popped off nightly and getting robbed by some punk shoving a Glock in their face.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 01, 2013 @ 12:53 pm

The other stuff shows some serious issues with the Dept. that need to be addressed- but the shooting sounds justified to me.

Posted by Whackamole on Mar. 01, 2013 @ 9:38 am

police shootings are never of, say, a nun walking downt he street. If they really were accidents, you'd expectthat to happen but, in practice, it's always a nogoodnik like Oscar grant.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 01, 2013 @ 10:43 am

Shootings like those of Kenneth Chamberlain, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, those women delivering papers in LA... oh no, shootings of totally innocent people NEVER happen. Nogoodniks all.

Posted by Greg on Mar. 01, 2013 @ 8:39 pm

By the way... note that these are all shootings/killings of totally innocent black and brown people. Shootings of totally innocent WHITE people are indeed rare. The posters above are most likely white, so they make the mistake that just because shootings of innocent people who look like them are rare, then that means shootings of innocent people must be rare. But they're not. They don't happen to YOUR family and YOUR friends, because your families and your friends are generally white. But that doesn't mean they don't happen.

And we need to ask ourselves why. One reason is in fact racism -racist stereotypes about people of color. It's not so much a matter of "I hate n------ and I want to kill them," although there may be a few who are like that as well. But if the cops see a white person fiddling with a lock, the first thing that pops into their head is probably "he's trying to get into his home." If they see the same thing from a black person, the first thing that pops into their head is "he's a criminal trying to break in." Add to that the fear of black men that society breeds into white people, and you get a tendency to shoot first and ask questions later -hence the 42 bullets fired at Amadou Diallo, only about a quarter of which hit their mark. This is the action of a group of cops who were motivated primarily by fear. Casting aside all their training -both conflict resolution and marksmanship; they didn't bother to ask any questions; they just unloaded their guns in Diallo's general direction.

The second problem that goes hand in hand with the first is lack of accountability. Cops aren't generally going to shoot at a wedding party of affluent-looking whites, because they know there will be hell to pay. Probably not hard time -the system is too protective of police for that. Although if the white person turns out to be connected to someone powerful, maybe there will be. But shoot a black guy, and you'll likely endure some phoney baloney internal investigation, some extra paid vacation time (otherwise known as administrative leave), and pretty soon you'll be welcomed back and promoted for your troubles. Every cop has this calculus in the back of his mind, and these killings won't stop until we change that calculus.

Posted by Greg on Mar. 02, 2013 @ 10:34 am

inevitable, gratuitous, self-serving reference to non-whites and "racism".

The cops never shoot anyone who is totally 100% innocent. And even if and win a cop makes a mistake or has an accident, the voters and jurorsremain supportive.

I trust our cops far more than I trust a cop-hater like you.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 02, 2013 @ 10:57 am

There's no doubt that these cops are corrupt but some of you are just taking it overboard. To be honest most police killings are justified, not all. Think of how out of control oakland is with crime (with most commited by black males) wouldn't you be ready to fire at all times. In a situation where a gangbanger pulls out a gun, politly ask him to put it down, or scream that the first time and if they don't listen, shoot. Its either you or them as my uncle has told me (a sheriff)

Posted by Guest on Mar. 01, 2013 @ 1:33 pm

There's no doubt that these cops are corrupt but some of you are just taking it overboard. To be honest most police killings are justified, not all. Think of how out of control oakland is with crime (with most commited by black males) wouldn't you be ready to fire at all times. In a situation where a gangbanger pulls out a gun, politly ask him to put it down, or scream that the first time and if they don't listen, shoot. Its either you or them as my uncle has told me (a sheriff)

Posted by Guest on Mar. 01, 2013 @ 1:34 pm

1) there has never been any proof at all that raheim brown was a "thug", "gangbanger", "drug-dealer" or "criminal".
2) Jonathan Bellusa has been involved in at least 4 excessive force cases since being transferred to the OUSD PD.
3) No where has anyone argued that violence in Oakland isn't a big deal. It's those of you who can only see one thing at a time, who can not imagine that police violence is very, very real.
4) There are many reasons why "crime" is committed by Black men. One of those reasons is that police unfairly target Black and Brown men, arrest them for minor infractions that rich white men get away with all of the time. That's putting it simply, but there it is.
5) Back to Bellusa. This deposition (the one that Bellusa gave, ahem) points two important things; a) he did not think Raheim Brown was actually a threat; b) that he actually initiated violent contact with Raheim Brown, even though Raheim Brown was not resisting at that time.

Read the deposition. Read the initial police report. Read the coroners report. What? Too much reading? I thought so.

Posted by Shakes on Mar. 01, 2013 @ 4:18 pm

blacks and hispanics commit most of it, as you appear to admit, then why should SFBG focus on the very occasional cop killing someone rather than the 130 murders a year?

In other words, why the biased reporting?

Posted by Guest on Mar. 01, 2013 @ 4:51 pm

When people are threatened by criminals, the recourse is to turn to the police. But where who do you turn to when the cops themselves are the criminals. Cops are given tremendous power, so they need to be held to a very high standard.

Posted by Greg on Mar. 01, 2013 @ 9:18 pm
?

you state 'blacks and hispanics commit most of it' ... indicating that you missed the point of earlier comments, which are based in fact : people with fair skin are rarely targeted, are ignored for committing terrible crimes against others, not the least of which are economic crimes. you seem to base your opinion on how many blacks and 'hispanics' are arrested or murdered by police, instead of doing the work it takes to discover that white bankers at boa and wells fargo are committing far more crimes per week than anyone else, yet are not being even approached, let alone arrested, charged, beaten, or murdered by police for those crimes.

the police in oakland commit crimes against the people every day.

Posted by wiseoldsnail on Mar. 02, 2013 @ 9:32 am

it is clear that the cops are not doing their job when the number of us who are being killed and injured by violent civilians and by violent cops is rising while the number of cops who are injured and killed protecting us is simultaneously falling.

Posted by marcos on Mar. 02, 2013 @ 9:49 am

what all thinking people would wish for.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 02, 2013 @ 10:54 am

Most people pay the cops to put themselves in harm's way so that we don't have to. We're still in harm's way while the cops manage to avoid that themselves. All so that they live to collect those magnificent pensions that you all love so much, all for not putting themselves on the line to keep us safe.

Posted by marcos on Mar. 02, 2013 @ 11:29 am

unlikely to mistake me for a gang member, thug or criminal.

But yes, I pay them to kick some ass among the criminal elements. They deserve their pay far more than most other city workers, who I would cheerfully throw under a bus to keep SFPD strong, because public safety is easily the number one priority task for a city. Most of the rest, I really don't care, and it could either be outsourced, privatized or stopped altogether.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 02, 2013 @ 11:35 am

You're a typical, run-of-the-mill bootlicking authoritarian. But that was already evident.

Posted by Greg on Mar. 02, 2013 @ 8:12 pm

Or he's just a regular person who knows that he's a thousand (ten?) times less likely to be attacked, robbed, or murdered by a cop then by some low life gang banger.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 03, 2013 @ 8:55 pm

Per the deposition, Brown resisted by grabbing a screwdriver and trying to get the driver to start the car. The cops, believing the car to be stolen were totally int he right to try and stop him. He continued fighting the cop and then tried to stab him with the screw driver. At least per this statement, how is it not a justified shooting?

Posted by Whackamole on Mar. 01, 2013 @ 5:06 pm

would justify his being shot, in Shakes' strange world.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 01, 2013 @ 5:16 pm

- Starting a stolen car with a screwdriver and trying to drive off when being questioned by police makes you a criminal. Biting and trying to stab an officer with a screwdriver makes you a VIOLENT criminal.

- So police arresting Black men for "minor infractions that rich white men get away with all the time" is the reason why Oakland is, according to Forbes, the capital of violent robberies in the whole country? Is it also the reason why in this country a Black male is killed by another Black male at the rate of about one every hour?

- Apparently YOU didn't read the Bellusa's deposition:

"According to Bellusa’s sworn testimony, 'I was afraid that I was going to get stabbed in the throat clear as day.' He told his partner to shoot Brown: 'I just screamed shoot him, shoot him,' he testified."

He also only initiated physical contact with Brown AFTER "Brown then grabbed a screwdriver and stuck into the ignition of the vehicle, directing Stewart to drive. This prompted a struggle between Brown and Bellusa."

Posted by Guest on Mar. 01, 2013 @ 5:07 pm

Only the SFBG is trying to make this into something it is not. The respectable press is telling it how it is.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 01, 2013 @ 5:16 pm

The most pleasant and useful persons are those who leave some of the problems of the universe for God to worry about. ~Don Marquis

Posted by anarkali suits on Mar. 10, 2013 @ 9:04 pm

Barhin K Bhatt

Possible address: 35411 Monterra Circle, Union City, CA
Possible phone: (510) 675-9652

We are Anonymous.
We are Legion.
We do not forgive.
We do not forget.
Expect us.

Posted by Anonymous on Jun. 19, 2013 @ 10:57 am