About two dozen protesters jammed the entrance of the Oakland Unified School District’s office building near Lake Merritt on Wednesday afternoon, demanding the dismissal of recently-appointed OUSD interim police chief Barhin Bhatt, who was involved in the fatal shooting of 20-year-old Raheim Brown earlier this year. The school district operates its own small police force, which Bhatt was appointed to head earlier this month after the previous chief stepped down.
“We believe it’s a slap in the face of the community,” said Cat Brooks, a rally organizer and a member of the Coalition for Justice for Oscar Grant. “It’s not OK to have a known killer walking in the halls of the school district.” According to Brooks, another protest against the police chief’s appointment was held at the same location on August 10, when the school board was having its first meeting after the summer recess. “We will be at every single one of the school board meetings until Bhatt is fired,” Brooks said.
On January 22, Bhatt, along with Sergeant Jonathan Bellusa, was patrolling outside a winter dance event for Skyline High School near Joaquin Miller Park when they spotted a suspicious car with two people inside. When the officers approached the car, one of the passengers, Brown, allegedly attacked one of them with a screwdriver. Bhatt shot Brown multiple times and he was pronounced dead at the scene. An attorney for the police officers later said the car turned out to be stolen and that a handgun was discovered inside.
Brown’s family has filed suit against the school district over his death, and his supporters made several appearances at school board meetings last spring to urge that Bhatt be fired and to contest the allegation that Brown had attacked an officer.
Bhatt was appointed interim police chief on August 5 after a complaint was filed against former OUSD police chief Pete Sarna for allegedly making racist remarks about African American officers after a charity golf tournament. Sarna resigned from his position on August 17 and the district has closed its investigation into the complaint against him.
“Sergeant Bhatt was the highest-ranking officer that wasn’t involved in that investigation,” said OUSD spokesperson Troy Flint, explaining that according to the police force’s hierarchy, Bhatt was the only qualified candidate for the chief position. “We’re pleased with the job that Sergeant Bhatt is doing amidst very unfavorable conditions,” Flint said, adding that the school board is also considering the possibility of bringing in another interim police chief before a permanent hire is made. “But there’s no timetable for that,” Flint added.
During Wednesday’s rally, protesters took turns speaking in front of an open microphone, criticizing the school board’s decision and police brutality in general.
“In this community a police officer doesn’t necessarily equate safety,” said Debra Mendoza to the crowd. “I don’t believe the level of violence in our school demands this level of force.” Mendoza, who identified herself as a former OUSD teacher and probation officer with Alameda County Probation Department, said she’s familiar with the problem of violence within the school system but said armed police officers are not the answer to reducing it, “especially when they are going to kill people,” she said.
“I think there are community-based solutions that we can come up with,” Mendoza said, suggesting that more violence prevention trainings should be provided to both school staff and the students.
According to the fliers distributed by the rally organizers, the next protest in front of OUSD is scheduled for 5 pm on September 7.