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Indybay FeatureRelated Categories: East Bay | Police State and Prisons
Community Group Exposes Wide Levels Of Corruption In OUSD Police Department
A six part series on policing in Oakland.
COMMUNITY GROUP EXPOSES WIDE LEVELS OF CORRUPTION IN THE OAKLAND UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT POLICE DEPARTMENT
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: February 28, 2013
(Oakland, CA) – Today, Against Hired Guns, released parts two and three of a six part series on police violence. Today’s release contains information from OUSD PD Commander Jonathan Bellusa that exposes questionable and unethical behavior by district personnel.
Bellusa has given sworn testimony against his own department as part of a civil legal action against himself and another OUSD officer (Barhin Bhatt) in the case of the killing of Raheim Brown, Jr.
In December 2012, Bellusa tried to tell his story to Judge Maria-Elena James – a federal judge who works in the San Francisco Federal Building. She refused to listen.
In his deposition, given on February 12, 2013, Bellusa called himself a “whistle-blower,” speaking about specifics in the killing of Raheim Brown, Jr. as well as widespread corruption within the police department in which he works.
Police violence is nothing new to city of Oakland, nor are grassroots attempts to prevent it. This incident is just one, in a long series of offenses committed against the public by the police whose mission is to “protect and serve”.
The hypocrisy of OUSD PD is even more egregious as Oakland Unified touts itself as the nation’s model for restorative justice, when in fact its police department is just as violent and corrupt as many others around the country. Restorative Justice simply cannot function if brought by the same institutions that create and increase violence.
While we support shedding light on corrupt police departments, we remember that the very nature of the role of law enforcement in our society can do nothing else but lead to violence. We are reminded of this as often as people are harassed, contained, criminalized or killed by cops. It’s worth mentioning that a recent report by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement revealed that every 36 Hours an African-American man, woman or child is murdered by the police, security guard or a vigilante.
It is better that Bellusa blow the whistle than not, but we do not forget that he is the one who set in motion the events that led to the killing of Raheim Brown, Jr. and he did it through actions that are justifiable by the legal system. It makes no sense to us to wholly support any individual or any system that perpetrates violence.
In response to this information, Against Hired Guns, will host a public town hall on Friday, March 8th at Uptown Studios (18th and Telegraph) from 6-8 pm to support sustained and strategic campaigns against policing in our communities. We hope that a myriad of people and organizations concerned with keeping our communities safe from the harms of policing will be there.
We also recognize work that has been and is being done to make our communities safer. There are too many examples to list, but we’d like to highlight one that is current and focuses on removing police from schools and supporting healthy and safe learning environments: The Youth Justice Coalition released a report earlier this month that was organized by a national coalition of youth. You can read the report at www.dignityinschools.org.
Learning to Struggle Stronger
The realities of police violence are never as front and center as when a cop kills another human being, and the public debate about police and violence rises to the top most dramatically when that human being is unarmed and Black or Brown. The opportunity allows us to point out the hypocrisy of the institution of policing: the notion that the police help to keep society safe in the long term. From Little Bobby Hutton to Gary King to Oscar Grant and Alan Blueford, this debate has consistently sparked militant and angry responses from the people. These situations inform the public debate about policing as they highlight contradictions in our society’s perception of safety as being a hyper-policed community. But when we put all of our resources – time, energy, money, etc. – into fighting for the names of people who’ve been killed, we become distracted from confronting the violence of standard and daily police policies. By rallying only when someone has been murdered by police we miss the opportunity to build strategic, tactical and on-going strategies of resistance against police brutality and the chance to prevent future murders.
In our attempts to curb police violence solely through the legal system, we give power back to the very forces that criminalize, kill, harass, corral and incarcerate people. We willingly return power to the structure responsible for the violence in the first place, replicating the system of domination that we are trying to fight.
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Yet even with a deep understanding and analysis, we often continue to rely on the legal system to give us justice but are met with the same results. At some point we must confront the role that we actively play in this madness.
While far from the spotlight, more mundane policing and imprisonment is violence and deserves every bit of our focus. Outside of politically-oriented actions, those targeted by police – through an extension of the de jure (legal) system of slavery our country was founded on – are overwhelmingly Black and Brown. White supremacy is alive and well in our laws, with police playing the role of daily enforcer.
With that said we have been able to recognize killings by police as contradictions and therefore opportunities.. The contradiction arises from our reliance on a system that has consistently shown itself to be supportive of the very forces which oppress us. The opportunity that presents itself with every police killing is a platform to amplify that contradiction and further people’s analysis of modern policing.
That is all to say, as people organizing against the violence of policing, we are opportunists.
September 20th, 2007:
December 31st, 2007:
Two years later, US District Judge Claudia Wilkin rules: “The undisputed evidence shows that Officers Jimenez and Borello acted reasonably when they used deadly force against Mr. Moppin.” Wilkin’s ruling also claims the officers believed Andrew Moppin was reaching for his waistband when they opened fire, justifying his murder.
Later, John Burris, a lawyer who has defended dozens of cases of police violence, says, “The young man, really, was responding to conflicting commands. One group of officers had him have his hands up. Another officer had him turn to the other side, and when he turned, the two officers in front interpreted those movements as, quote, ‘going to his waist band’.”
July 25th, 2008:
January 1st, 2009:
July 8th, 2010:
November 5th, 2010:
From January 2009 through November 2010, well over a million dollars of damage is done in the form of broken windows, dumpster fires and burnt cars. The government is forced to act. For the first time in decades, a California cop is criminally charged with an on-duty murder. Two cops lose their jobs for aiding the trigger-puller. The BART police chief, Alameda County District Attorney and two Oakland Police Chiefs all flee their jobs and the city. Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums is frowned upon across the board for an uninspiring response.
November 8th, 2010:
December 18th, 2010:
February 19th, 2011:
A few weeks later, on March 5th, a police arbitrator decides the killer of Andrew Moppin and Jody Woodfox will be rehired by the Oakland Police Department with full back pay because “sacrificing Officer Jimenez on the altar of public opinion” would not bring Woodfox back. The cop’s lawyer said he wasn’t at all surprised by the ruling because his client was “the victim of political persecution.”
December 11th, 2012:
Fueled by footage of Oscar Grant III’s murder, people swarmed the streets of Oakland using a wide array of tactics to build power behind demands, which almost universally included charging Johannes Mehserle, Oscar’s killer cop, with murder. Among different groups, demands went as far as a public community forum, disarming BART police, and for the BART police department to be shut down altogether.
The top demand was met. Mehserle was charged with first-degree murder. He was jailed. Energy dissipated. By the time he was let out of his cage eleven months later, Mehserle’s release was met with such a dull response in the streets that it was covered only as a side note in news stories.
From insurrectionary-minded radicals to Oscar Grant’s own family members, that fight for justice has been celebrated.
While we should celebrate uprisings and the large impact on the public debate around police violence that was made by that campaign, we must also be honest with ourselves if we are to learn, grow and mature in our fight against police terror. Justice was not served in the cop’s arrest, court process and short imprisonment; or in the temporary firing and rehiring of the cops who aided in the killing’; or in the replacement of BART and Oakland police chiefs with new ones (both of whom have overseen the “justified” killings of people since their hiring). Oakland’s current mayor has extended the reign of violence, having overseen attacks on the Occupy Oakland camp in the form brutal attacks on crowds of protestors with tear gas, flash grenades and batons. She has also overseen and accepted numerous police killings and the implementation of policies that give police more power to target young people and Black and Brown communities.
We angrily came out into the streets not just because Oscar Grant was murdered, but because many of us know that repression of Black and Brown people (as well as homeless people, sex-workers, youth, queer and transgendered people, etc.) is the daily and mundane role of police. That plays out in the form of everything from foreclosure evictions to heightened civil infractions for graffiti, sit/lie laws and gang injunctions. It would be irresponsible, in the context of dozens of people killed at the hands of Oakland cops since Oscar Grant was murdered, to find peace in a system that locks up a single cop and empowers others to continue to take lives. That is far from justice, and advocating a reproduction of the Oscar Grant model will not get us closer to it. Rather, we need to develop beyond that important example.
To develop new strategic responses, let’s better understand what we are combating.
Applying the lessons
Police violence is officially validated when courts offer no punishment for cops who harass, cage and kill people. In these cases, the values of the community and grassroots values of justice all but disappear. These experiences show us that the systems of courts and policing are built to sustain and reproduce themselves and their agendas. From individual cops to federal enforcers, those doing their jobs correctly erase any sense of accountability of the state to the people. This experience in turn creates opportunity. If we are opportunists, these are times to seize.
Most of us who’ve mobilized against killings by police have not done so because our family members have been killed in the same circumstances (although many of us have family who’ve been criminalized and caged by the same forces). Rather, we mobilize because we see police killings both as an ongoing issue impacting our day-to-day lives and because they are an accessible entry point for people to build analysis against policing. These circumstances present both a contradiction and an opportunity.
In cases of police murders, we often accept the idea that there is nothing more we can do than follow directions of the traumatized family and pursue justice in the ways they ask of us. While solidarity with these families is important, let’s also look to additional, sustainable and long-term ways that we can take the fight for justice to the next level.
The principle of solidarity pushes us to support the material and emotional needs of people who have family members killed in any situation. This support role can move us forward in multiple ways. First, the healing process is a major strain on material and emotional resources. Supporting those needs can help to strengthen family members and therefore build their political focus, enabling them to engage in broader organizing efforts. Second, building a real-world understanding of the personal struggles of those directly affected by violence allows organizers to humanize and realize the affects of unexpected death. Finally, that support also allows for more strategic points of entry for organizers, and gives those who maintain these relationships an intimate way of reflecting on – and therefore offering innovations to – the organizing process.
When our radical community steps up to support families in these situations, we do so because we recognize the contradictions and opportunities; we do so to rip these contradictions out of the holes carved by government bullets and use them to strategically put police under fire. But as organizers who step up for families and watch life after life stolen and a broad focus by the grassroots on individual responsibility (i.e. prosecuting “bad” cops), our role is different than that of a family member or their legal representation. We must stop falling into traps of the past.
Traditional definitions would label a “bad” cop as one who either breaks rules at their job or follows the law in ways that appear egregious to civilians. A “good” cop is one who strictly follows the law or who acts in ways that civilians around them perceive as positive. Both those categories exist. Neither have a place in a radical conversation about justice.
Focusing on individual responsibility – such as the drilled-in demand to jail or prosecute a “bad (killer) cop” – can be deeply important for a family who lost someone, and they alongside those whose job it is to navigate legal confines should be supported to focus on that goal. However, a broader movement built against police killings, police brutality and policing in general, needs to have a deeper understanding of how policing has been and is being experienced: as the armed guard of a legal system that is rooted in the domination of people and land through de jure (legal) and de facto (in reality) slavery and capitalism.
In the model mentioned above, the justice that is sought is not justice at all. Taking a cop’s badge is useful in that it takes them off the street, but there are many more eager to replace them and many departments willing to oblige. Putting one cop in jail does nothing to solve the larger and endemic issues that plague poor Black and Brown communities. Rather, let’s refocus our energy toward preventing the same patterns that allowed the trigger pulling in the first place from happening again and again.
 For examples of these lists of demands, check out these links: http://mxgm.org/statement-against-the-execution-of-oscar-grant-iii/; http://mxgm.org/statement-against-the-execution-of-oscar-grant-iii/; http://nojusticenobart.blogspot.com/2009/01/what-is-no-justice-no-bart.html
Positioning a Police Whistle Blower
Oakland Unified School District Police Commander Jonathan Bellusa has penetrated the “thin blue line” that shields corrupt, abusive, violent police officers and departments. He has done so through legal mechanisms and has made sure to seek out lawyers that he trusts in order to be a whistle-blower in a way that is legally appropriate to his position. Among the broad public and because of the methods he used, he will likely be considered a “good” cop.
As we described in Part One of this series: A “good” cop is one who strictly follows the law or who acts in ways that civilians around them perceive as positive. Bellusa has attempted to fulfill the former part of that definition, and has fulfilled the latter. But as we also described in Part One, this analysis of “good” or “bad” cop has no place in a radical conversation about justice. Releasing the details of Raheim Brown, Jr.’s murder or the department-wide corruption of OUSD PD on his terms would mostly likely benefit Bellusa and highlight him as a hero. This is partially why Against Hired Guns is preempting his release of this information.
Exposing the “Thin Blue Line”
In his testimony, Bellusa described a deeply interconnected web of self-protection among departments and individuals related to the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) and the Oakland Police Department. The connections, described in depth in a summary that is published as Part Three of this document, exposes dirty dealings of officers, lawyers and political representatives that serve those agencies.
As a result of his attempts to blow the whistle –through OUSD’s Human Resources office, through Internal Affairs, through lawyers hired to represent him by the district, through a federal judge, through the Federal Bureau of Investigation and through the US Attorney’s office – Bellusa was threatened. The only detail of those threats described in his testimony is this: “I have felt that if I gave statements that went against the district, that I would be thrown in jail for perjury.” We expect more details to come.
No Justice for Raheim
Bellusa was the primary aggressor in the events immediately preceding the killing of Raheim Brown, Jr. on January 22nd, 2011. The young man literally had his shirt ripped off of his back and was being beaten with a “hammer fist” and a flashlight before Raheim made any intentional physical contact with anyone – all of this is according to Bellusa’s testimony. Raheim’s natural human instinct to protect himself from being assaulted by two people has been and will likely continue to be considered an attack on an officer by the legal system.
After the first two shots fired at Raheim by Sergeant Barhin Bhatt – at the direction of Bellusa – his gun jammed. Five to ten seconds later, after Bellusa had identified that no officer faced an immediate threat, Bhatt fired another round of bullets, resulting in Raheim’s death.
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 legal route did not lead and will not lead to justice for Raheim’s family.
Even a Broken Clock is Right Twice a Day
While we support shedding light on corrupt police departments, we remember that the very nature of the role of law enforcement in our society can do nothing else but increase violence. We are reminded of this as often as people are harassed, contained, criminalized or killed by cops.
It is better that Bellusa blow the whistle than not, but it would be a mistake to forget that he set in motion the events that led to the killing of Raheim Brown, Jr. through actions that are justifiable by the legal system. It makes no sense to us to wholly support any individual or any system that perpetrates violence.
This police commander still has his job, and as demonstrated by his approach to blowing the whistle, he believes the legal system to be the primary mechanism for justice. As we explored in Part One of this series, the enforcement of our legal system constantly justifies and relies on violence. Bellusa’s job is to enforce that system through the wrist-wringing of handcuffs, the bars of a prison cell, and the barrel of a gun. This twisted concept of safety increases and intensifies violence by police and on our streets.
Within the framework of understanding that legal policies, practices and institutions use violence and corruption to function, our search for justice in response to police attacks excludes police and cannot be centered on the legal process they are tasked with defending. From individual cops to their departments and to federal enforcers – all complicit in this exposé – these legal institutions do their jobs correctly when they keep information away from the public. By reinforcing itself as the only route toward justice, our legal system prevents the public from being proactive in our efforts to keep our communities safe. In the meantime, that system shields itself and continues to harass, contain, cage and kill. Relying on the legal system to grant us justice perpetuates and expands the violence of policing.
What we understand in this case, and to reiterate from previous ones (explored in Part One), is the need to continue to support Raheim’s family and to build this case into our understanding of the meaning of policing: A constant raising of the stakes that turns a claim of feeling threatened or a stolen car into the taking of a life, and placing it in a grave or a cage.
The killing of Raheim Brown, Jr. and the events leading to it are not unique. The corruption described in Bellusa’s testimony within the Oakland school police and those who supervise and defend it is not unique. The only difference in this case is that we have a “good” cop and a legal transcript.
The purpose of this piece is to broaden people’s understandings of how police and our legal system protect themselves at all levels in ways that increase harm and violence.
Against Hired Guns is not interested in defining the character of public outcry, but we also want to support concrete wins. Because of this, we will be facilitating a public meeting on Friday, March 8th at Uptown Studios (1738 Telegraph Ave in Oakland) from 6-8pm to support sustained and strategic campaigns against policing in our communities. We hope that a myriad of people and organizations concerned with keeping our communities safe from the harms of policing will be there.
School Cop Blows The Whistle
Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) Police Commander Jonathan Bellusa has given sworn testimony against his own department as part of a civil legal action against himself and another OUSD officer in the case of the killing of Raheim Brown, Jr.
In December 2012, Bellusa tried to tell his story to Judge Maria-Elena James – a federal judge who works in the San Francisco Federal Building. She refused to listen.
Police Commander Jonathan Bellusa gave a deposition on February 12, 2013. In his deposition, which is legally bound as sworn testimony, Bellusa called himself a “whistle-blower,” speaking about specifics in the killing of Raheim Brown, Jr. as well as widespread corruption within the police department in which he works.
Sergeant Bellusa has now penetrated the “thin blue line” that shields corrupt, abusive, violent police officers and departments. His sworn testimony exposes a cover up and widespread corruption within the OUSD Police Department at every level, including the department’s highest player – OUSD Superintendent Tony Smith – as well as the department’s current Police Chief James Williams, former Police Chief Peter Sarna, Sarna’s assistant Jenny Wong, the OUSD’s general legal council Jacqueline Minor, another attorney for the district, Sergeant Barhin Bhatt – who fired the deadly bullets at Raheim Brown, Jr., Lou Silva, a former OUSD officer and current district-wide Campus Security and Safety Manager and the department’s Internal Affairs procedure.
The testimony also refers to complicity in the cover up by Oakland Police Department (OPD) Chief Howard Jordan, OPD Captain Brian Medeiros, OPD Homicide Sergeant Rachael Van Sloten and more.
Against Hired Guns is the first source to release the sworn statements given by Bellusa. We are releasing this information as Part Three of a six-part series that places the statements of Bellusa’s testimony in the larger overall context of policing in our society, the “thin blue line” that protects officers from any consequences, and the relationship between policing and “restorative justice” that OUSD proudly flaunts as a model for school districts across the country.
We have known about Bellusa’s attempts to blow the whistle on the OUSD Police Department. We have known that he was told to lie and threatened for not wanting to do so. For months, we have understood Bellusa’s attempts to bring his story, in the face of threats, to the FBI and a federal judge as a statement to the depth of what he experienced. We did not know until reading this deposition that he had also been interviewed by the US Attorney’s office.
We did not make this knowledge public until now because we wanted to ensure that his statements are on record. Knowing our work as community organizers can be most effective from the shadows, we worked to make sure that Sergeant Bellusa’s story was recorded. This sworn testimony is documented legally – and now publicly – and therefore the stories within it are protected. It is now in our interest to share this information as widely as possible and to connect the dots between Bellusa’s testimony and its relevance to the violence of policing in our society and in our schools.
The Killing of Raheim Brown, Jr.
Outside a dance party at Oakland’s Skyline High School on Saturday, January 22, 2011, Raheim Brown, Jr. and Tamisha Stewart were sitting in a Honda that had its hazard lights flashing. Two officers who work for the OUSD Police Department, Sergeant Barhin Bhatt and Commander Jonathan Bellusa, pulled up behind the Honda in an unmarked patrol car and flicked on their dash lights. Bhatt walked to the driver’s window and began speaking with Stewart and Brown as Bellusa flanked the rear of the car, behind the passenger’s side. After about 20 seconds, Bellusa “observed the passenger moving around [in a way] which was inconsistent to what a normal person would do if they were cooperating.” He approached the passenger door and opened it without warning, crouching in what he calls a “catcher’s stance.” This is all according to his own sworn account of the incident.
Raheim Brown, Jr., sitting in the passenger’s seat, continued to move in an “inconsistent” way: “the best way to describe it – he was very fidgety,” Bellusa testified. As Bellusa crouched by the fully opened door, he noticed a screwdriver on the car’s floor. Brown started to reach toward another screwdriver that was on the car’s middle console, and as Bellusa said “show me your hands,” Brown directed the screwdriver toward the car’s ignition – apparently trying to start the car and instructing Tamisha Stewart, who was in the driver’s seat, to drive away.
Bellusa lunged into the car, grabbing Raheim Brown, Jr. from behind as Brown was leaned over toward the ignition. “I was almost sitting in the passenger seat, with my arms at certain parts of the struggle around Brown,” Bellusa said in his deposition. 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. Using what he describes as a “hammer fist,” Bellusa hit Brown three to five times in his lower back. Brown had not yet made any aggressive move toward anyone, according to Bellusa’s description of events.
“Because… Brown’s demands of driving away didn’t seem to have been met, it was my impression that – and I can’t speak for him – but my impression was that he felt there was no other place to go and I was trying my hardest to get control over him,” Bellusa said in his deposition. In this description of Brown’s being physically restricted and hit numerous times, the 22-year old then tried to elbow Bellusa in self defense. “And then I ripped his shirt off at that time because I was trying to get control,” Bellusa testified. As the sergeant reached around Brown to grab him tighter, Brown bit Bellusa’s wrist. Bellusa pulled his hand away and again used his “hammer fist” to hit Brown.
Brown then grabbed the screwdriver from the car’s ignition. “I believe that the backside of the screwdriver [was what] he used at that point to strike me in the chest. That’s what makes sense to me,” said Bellusa.
As the struggle ensued and neither fighter gave in, Raheim Brown, Jr. turned the screwdriver around and tried to make contact with Bellusa. Feeling threatened, Bellusa told his partner to shoot Brown: “I just screamed ‘shoot him shoot him’,” he testified.
In his position as commander, Bellusa’s rank was higher than Bhatt’s. In this context, the request for Bhatt to shoot Brown could be seen as a direct order.
When asked in his deposition if Raheim Brown, Jr. was given any warning of the shots to come, as in: “Don’t do X, or Y is going to happen to you,” Bellusa said that no specific warnings were ever given. The entire hand-to-hand struggle took approximately 20 seconds.
As Bellusa pulled himself out of the car, two shots were quickly fired through the driver’s open window (past the face of Tamisha Stewart) 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.”
Bhatt then unloaded another series of bullets into Brown’s body. Between the first and the last shots, Raheim was filled with lead – two shots ripped through his head and three others through his arms and torso.
Directed now toward the only conscious civilian, Tamisha Stewart, who was in the driver’s seat during the entire interaction, Bhatt said something to the tune of “Don’t move or I’ll shoot you,” according to Bellusa’s deposition.
At a press conference soon after the incident, Stewart said that she was beaten and locked in a local jail for nearly a week. She also said, “There was nothing that Raheim did that he deserved to die,” and that the screwdriver that Bellusa claims Brown used to attack him “never left the ignition.”
At some point in the interaction, Bellusa saw a firearm in the side-pocket of the passenger door – close to where he was crouching in a “catcher’s stance” after he opened that door. According to his testimony, Bellusa did not communicate with Bhatt about the gun until after Brown was shot and after Stewart was outside of the car in handcuffs. Bellusa instructed Bhatt at this point to “point your gun at Brown because there’s a gun – a firearm in the door.” Bellusa says that Bhatt’s first response was: “What?”
Sergeant Barhin Bhatt, who fired at least five shots that resulted in Raheim Brown, Jr.’s death, did not know there was any firearm in the car until well after Brown could have posed any threat, and potentially after Brown was dead. According to Bellusa’s testimony, Bhatt never mentioned to Bellusa while on the scene that he saw a gun.
Bellusa has also been the target of numerous excessive force lawsuits, including one in 2000 in which the officer – then working for the Oakland Police Department – shot a man in the stomach and the leg during a traffic stop. In 2001, Miles Deshawn Goolsby Jr., reported that Bellusa “grabbed his arms and body-slammed him to the ground… after the young man asked why his father was inside a police car,” according to a San Francisco Chronicle report.
Quick Cover Up
Following an in-depth description of the above events, Bellusa’s deposition testimony leads us to an immediate interaction prior to an Internal Affairs interview at the Oakland Police Department (OPD) headquarters. The following is what he described in sworn testimony.
Soon after Bhatt and Bellusa were brought directly from the scene to OPD headquarters, and before their separated interviews, OUSD Superintendent Tony Smith, then-OUSD Police Chief Peter Sarna, and then-OUSD legal council Jacqueline Minor pulled Bellusa aside to ask what happened. “They were both my supervisors,” Bellusa said in the deposition. “I didn’t think anything of it, but the Superintendent was asking me what had happened and I just give him a very brief spiel, as you will, about what had happened.” The three OUSD officials left the room, and the police chief and superintendent returned about five minutes later.
According to Bellusa’s testimony, Tony Smith said specifically: “John, tell me where the gun was tell me everything you can remember about the gun and what it looked like.”
Involvement like this by a chief and their supervisor in an investigation of this kind is a break from normal procedure, particularly if they spoke with Bhatt in between their contact with Bellusa. The break from normal procedure continued: “Chief Sarna instructed Captain [Brian] Medeiros [of OPD’s homicide division] that I would not be interviewed again and [I would] not participate in a walk through,” Bellusa explained in his testimony. He testified that it is his understanding from normal policing procedure in these circumstances to have an interview with the Internal Affairs department and then be brought to do a full walk through at the scene of the incident.
Bellusa said that at some point in the early part of this investigation, OPD Chief Howard Jordan called his Internal Affairs Department, but Chief Sarna told Jordan to “cancel the call out.” Sarna wanted Bellusa to go home, but Captain Medeiros, who was still present, continued to insist that Bellusa go on a full walk through.
OPD’s Chief Jordan “still insisted [on] having internal affairs… do the investigation.” Bellusa continued, in his testimony: “Chief Sarna’s words to me were [referring to Jordan]: ‘He can kiss my ass. I don’t want him in my department.”
Extending the Cover Up
About a month later, according to Bellusa’s testimony, he ran into his chief in a hallway. He described the interaction as follows: “[Sarna let out] a boisterous yell with his first up in the air… and he was just saying ‘Yes! Yes!’ and he said that [we], meaning we as a department… don’t have to worry about anything.” This was because Sarna found out that his “friend” Pete Peterson would be the police investigator for the internal police investigation into the killing of Raheim Brown, Jr.
As a result, according to Bellusa’s testimony, Sarna was sure the district would not come under pressure as a result of the Internal Affairs investigation. To drive this home, Sarna told Bellusa that he “might as well have a limo pick us [officers involved in Brown’s killing] up and take us to Mike Rains office to meet with Peterson.” Michael Rains is a lawyer who is well known for representing officers in cases of misconduct. His defense work includes the cases of the officer who killed Oscar Grant III and the “Oakland Riders” – the former being a case that caused riots in Oakland’s streets and the latter being one that exposed widespread scandal within Oakland’s police department.
If Pete Peterson’s involvement in this investigation means that he was coordinating it specifically for the benefit of a police department, regardless of his personal relationship with Peter Sarna, it calls into question any investigation that Peterson has been involved in. This would include questionable investigations he was involved in that go at least as far back as 1994, also in Oakland.
Over a span of months after Raheim Brown, Jr. was killed, Bellusa gave photos of his injuries and fingerprints at the OPD headquarters and interacted with OPD’s Homicide Sergeant Rachael Van Sloten, who told him in these interactions that there were “issues” in the case. Bellusa testified that at a chance encounter at a courthouse, Van Sloten specifically told him three times that if the case were to go to court, “Bhatt has issues.”
For nearly two years, Raheim’s family and their supporters called on Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley to file criminal charges against the officers involved in the shooting, but she refused because the use of deadly force complied with their legal mandate. The federal US Attorney’s office echoed O’Malley’s decision in November of 2012, deciding not to file federal criminal charges in the case. The local and federal government agree that killing Raheim Brown, Jr. was within the workplace duties of the officers involved. There is no other enforcer that could file criminal charges although either of those parties could change their position if new evidence were to come to light.
On July 18th, 2011, OUSD Police Chief Pete Sarna took some of his officers golfing in the Oakland hills for a charity event, got drunk, and in the car on their return to Oakland, reportedly told officers that “the only good nigger is a dead nigger and they should hang you in the town square to prevent any other nigger from coming in the area.” According to a San Francisco Chronicle report: “The outbursts continued when they reached the home of another sergeant, Jonathan Bellusa, where Sarna directed insults at his colleague’s children… Sarna directed more slurs at an Asian-American officer as he was being driven to his home.”
Bellusa filed a formal complaint against Sarna for the drunken epithets.
According to his testimony: “The best way I can describe it is the feeling that you would have with a girlfriend or a boyfriend that cheated on you. [You] don’t want to believe it. You… pick up and remember and see what really happened.” It was at this time that Bellusa began to distrust Sarna and to reflect on his boss’ shady handling of the case of Raheim Brown, Jr.
At around 10am on August 9th, 2011, Bellusa followed the OUSD’s main lawyer, Jacqueline Minor, and Superintendent Tony Smith into a parking lot, according to his deposition. “I was on one side of the fence watching them. They were approximately 20 feet from me, and I over heard Jackie Minor… say they were not going to let John get away with this.” He testified that surveillance video from that night would show the interaction, and would show him observing it.
Bellusa said, in the aftermath of Sarna’s racist tirade, that another 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].’”
Bellusa’s testimony describes another incident after he reported Sarna’s racial tirade, in which Minor told the entire police department staff that “she did not believe that the incident took place” and that she and Tony Smith “were soliciting officers to come forward [to] speak with them privately.” Bellusa testified that another officer described one of these private meetings to him: “The interview they had with Jackie Minor was not about Sarna. It was all about you. She [Minor] said… ‘Has John ever yelled at you or been mean to you? Has he ever done anything inappropriate to you?’”
“Officer Holly Matthews then later came to me; told me that Jacqueline Minor… stated that the use of the ‘N’ word is not that big of a deal, that people say it all the time.” Bellusa added that Officer Matthews told him the interview barely made mention of the complaint he had filed against Sarna.
An SF Chronicle article reported: “After word went around the department that a complaint had been lodged against Sarna, O’Sullivan [Bellusa’s lawyer at the time] said the chief drove the African-American sergeant to a secluded location and told him, ‘What happened didn’t happen.’”
On Wednesday, August 17th, 2011, Peter Sarna stepped down from his position as OUSD Police Chief.
Who better to replace the epithet-slinging cop than the one who ended Raheim Brown, Jr.’s life? Bhatt was quickly appointed as Interim OUSD Police Chief. Outraged community members filled school board meetings until Bhatt was removed from the position, to be replaced with now-Interim Police Chief James Williams.
Bellusa said that not long after the epithet incident, he was “retaliated” against by Pete Peterson “for speaking about the shooting [of Raheim Brown, Jr.] and for turning Sarna in for racial remarks.” Bellusa testified that this retaliation was in response to a complaint he filed with the OUSD’s Human Resources department in late August of 2011.
In the lengthy testimony, Bellusa described a series of events which led him to distrust Sarna and the functionality of the OUSD Police Department, including:
Bellusa also testified that he witnessed Bhatt take a bottle of Wild Turkey whiskey out of his desk drawer and “pour the alcohol into a cup” while on duty. Bellusa said that he was “concerned about Sergeant Bhatt’s mental state,” adding that around the time of the Wild Turkey incident, he saw Bhatt cleaning his firearm for a long period of time. “I left the office at nine. I returned at 11. He was still in the same position cleaning his weapon.” Bellusa attributed this to “post-traumatic stress” and reported the incident to Sarna and Natoya Brice, an OUSD human resources worker. Bellusa was thanked for his report and was not contacted again by either Sarna or Brice in the matter.
According to Bellusa’s deposition, he experienced further retaliation but was not allowed to speak about those details in the context of this deposition due to attorney-client privileges. If another lawsuit is filed, which we expect – partially as a result of our work – Bellusa will be legally invited to tell whatever parts of the story he had to leave out of this deposition because of attorney-client privilege.
In fact, Bellusa testified that “Every time I’ve had to do something that’s protected under attorney-client privilege… Chief [James Williams] jumps,” requiring Bellusa to take fitness-for-duty tests. Bellusa said that he feels that these tests have been done as a form of retaliation for providing information that is adverse to the OUSD or its employees, particularly the district’s general legal council Jacqueline Minor and Michael Smith, another attorney for the district.
The deposition transcript ends with guarded references to Bellusa being threatened by former attorneys that were hired by the OUSD for his intention to blow the whistle on the district, and that he has been interviewed about the case by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the US Attorney’s office.
In the deposition, Bellusa did not describe the nature of those threats, but said: “I have felt that if I gave statements that went against the district that I would be thrown in jail for perjury.”
Police Commander Jonathan Bellusa technically works for the OUSD Police Department, but is on forced paid administrative leave.
Sergeant Barhin Bhatt, who fired the deadly bullets at Raheim Brown, Jr. at the request of his commander, now directs the OUSD Police Department’s Bureau of Field Operations and continues to be tasked with policing kids in Oakland at elementary, middle and high schools, as well as the occasional school board meeting. He may still keep a bottle of Wild Turkey whiskey in his desk drawer.
OUSD Superintendent Tony Smith, Interim Police Chief James Williams, district lawyers Jacqueline Minor and Michael Smith, Jenny Wong (who Bellusa described as Sarna’s “assistant”), and Campus Security and Safety Manager Lou Silva, currently maintain their positions within the OUSD.
Oakland Police Department (OPD) Chief Howard Jordan, OPD Captain Brian Medeiros and OPD Homicide Sergeant Rachael Van Sloten have also maintained their positions.
There is no public information regarding Pete Peterson’s current work.
Each of these people are implicated directly, indirectly or complicity in Bellusa’s sworn testimony.
PDF of Belusa Transcript.