A new chief for the BART police seeks to heal community ties
on December 9, 2010
Ever since then-BART police officer Johannes Mehserle fatally shot Oscar Grant on the platform of its Fruitvale station nearly two years ago, BART—and particularly its police force—has struggled to rebuild its relationship with the communities it serves. Seeking a stabilizing leader after longtime BART police chief Gary Gee’s resignation in 2009, this summer BART General Manager Dorothy Dugger appointed veteran cop Kenton Rainey to head the department. Five months into his tenure, he has already had to lead the BART police’s response to major protests related to Mehserle’s trial in July and November. But having made a career of community outreach, Rainey hopes to help BART repair its damaged reputation.
“I believe in accountability, crime control, mentoring of youth,” Rainey said in a recent interview. “If people hire me, that’s what they’re going to get.” A police officer for more than thirty years, Rainey said he knew he wanted to work in law enforcement as early as the seventh grade. “Me and my friends used to watch the police officers come and go to work” during his childhood in Chicago, Rainey said. “They’d coach some of our Little League teams, basketball teams—we admired them, and that was our childhood dream, that we would become police officers one day.”
As chief of BART’s police force, Rainey leads an agency with a peculiar jurisdiction. Its officers primarily patrol the district’s trains, its 43 stations and the area surrounding each of these, but they are empowered to enforce the law anywhere in California. Given the district’s widespread rail network throughout the Bay Area, BART police coordinate with police departments in all 26 cities served by BART, as well as with state and federal agencies, notably including the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force. BART police are also responsible for preventing and responding to less dramatic crimes, including vandalism and fare evasion.
Despite his new high-profile role, the chief’s office at the BART Police Department’s main headquarters overlooks no scenic corner of Oakland. Rather, Rainey’s underground office periodically hums and vibrates with the passing of the BART trains at the Lake Merritt station, directly under his feet.
Rainey began his career in law enforcement in Southern California’s Ventura County—one of the most affluent counties in the country—where he served for 23 years. Starting in 1979, he climbed from deputy to captain before being called to head the Patrol Operations Division in Dayton, Ohio, in 2002. The move was an opportunity for Rainey to work in a more densely urban setting, though he is quick to point out that he arrived with a working familiarity with larger cities. “I grew up on the South Side of Chicago,” he said. “Can’t get more urban than that.”
He spent two years as Superintendant of Patrol Operations in Dayton before returning to California in 2004 to take a job in Whittier. In 2007 he was called up to serve as police chief in Fairfield, a city of just over 100,000 about 35 miles northeast of Oakland. He passed the first six months of this year in Texas heading San Antonio’s Airport Police Division, and took the reins at BART in June. Though he’s worked in six different police departments in the last ten years, Rainey says the skills required at each are the same. “Policing is policing,” he says. “The good guys are supposed to protect the community from the bad guys.”
But in the eyes of many Oaklanders, Oscar Grant’s death in 2009 blurred the line between good guys and bad. The death of Grant, a 22-year-old black man, at the hands of Johannes Mehserle, a white police officer, was to many observers an especially egregious offense—in part because it occurred in plain sight, filmed by several bystanders on cell phone cameras, and partly because many perceived Mehserle to receive special treatment throughout the trial that followed.
After the initial shock of Grant’s death, which led to protests and left the relationship between BART and Oakland’s African-American community severely strained, Grant’s supporters were further upset by Alameda Superior Court Judge Morris Jacobson’s October 2009 decision to relocate Mehserle’s trial to Los Angeles County in search of a jury unbiased by the protests in Oakland and the media attention they attracted. (The Los Angeles jury ultimately included no African-Americans). In July, 2010, Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, rather than the more serious charges of voluntary manslaughter and second-degree murder. In November, Mehserle was sentenced to two years in prison, including time already served—a light sentence compared to the potential 14-year term he faced. (Oakland North’s full coverage of Mehserle’s trial can be found here).
In this contentious context, BART seems to have sought a chief capable of rebuilding the agency’s relationship with its riders—especially those in the African-American community. Shortly before Mehserle’s verdict was announced in July, BART Board President James Fang issued a statement expressing remorse for Grant and his family, calling Grant’s death a “terrible tragedy.” He went on to express the board’s hope that Rainey, who is African-American, “will not only implement the changes the BART Board has made but work tirelessly to re-establish the trust and confident [sic] of our communities and customers by meeting the high standards they expect and deserve.”
Rainey certainly has a résumé for improving community relations. Throughout his career, he has demonstrated a sensitivity to issues of race, both between officers and civilians, and among diverse groups of officers in the departments at which he’s worked.
After 13 years in the Ventura County Police Department, in 1992 Rainey, then a sergeant, was the highest ranking of eleven African-American officers who filed a class-action lawsuit against the department for institutional racism. In the suit, Rainey and his co-litigants claimed that racist jokes were often heard over the service radio, and that black officers were effectively barred from the top ranks.
The African-American officers won their suit, but Rainey says the result was “a win-win” for both parties. “All we sued for was change,” he said. “We just wanted to make sure that the department was inclusive.” As a result of the suit, the department revised its policies in areas including hiring, training, and promotion.
The lawsuit may also have helped Rainey land the BART Police Department’s top job. Rainey’s role in the suit “speaks of his commitment to equality of opportunity and his strong ethics in his professional responsibilities,” General Manager Dugger told the San Francisco Chronicle last spring. “In that case, he was more of a junior in the department and perhaps certain avenues were not available to him… As leader of [BART’s] department, he’ll certainly have other tools to work with.”
Rainey has specialized for much of his career in “community policing,” or outreach. In this context, community policing “is not a program, it’s an organizational philosophy,” he said. “We can’t do our jobs without partnering with the community,” he added. “It’s impossible.”
While chief in Fairfield, Rainey was quick to implement a program of community policing. He sought to build partnerships with several faith-based organizations in the city, ultimately helping found a coalition of clergy called Faith Partners Against Crime, and promoted the formation of a Police Athletic League reminiscent of the police involvement in youth sports that first drew him to law enforcement as a teen.
Now that he’s at BART, Rainey says he looks forward to working with the new citizen oversight committee, a group formed in response to Oscar Grant’s death that reports directly to BART’s Board of Directors. The committee, whose 11 members will represent each of the nine BART districts, the board, and the BART Police Officers’ Association and Police Managers’ Association, will officially become a part of BART’s charter on January 1. The group will communicate with the police department via a newly created independent police auditor, and has the authority to review policy proposals and make recommendations to the board. BART officials hope to fill the new committee quickly so that it can convene early in 2011.
Nearly six months into Rainey’s tenure, general manager Dorothy Dugger said she was “extremely pleased” with Rainey’s performance so far. Rainey acknowledges that his arrival marks a fresh, post-Mehserle start for BART. He praised interim chief (and former Berkeley Police Department chief) Daschel Butler for “making some great strides” earlier this year, but sees himself as a “change agent” in the district. “If an organization needs some type of change, or they want community outreach,” he said, “that’s what I do.”
Image: BART Police Chief Kenton Rainey in his office above the Lake Merritt BART station.
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