A northern California transit officer who was fired on charges of lying about circumstances that preceded a nationally controversial OIS has been ordered reinstated after an arbitration hearing in which Force Science played a pivotal role.
Twenty-nine-year-old MarySol Domenici was among half a dozen Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officers whose actions were challenged amidst a racially fueled “media frenzy” after they responded to a brawl on a public train near San Francisco early on New Year’s Day, 2009.
One of the group, Ofcr. Johannes Mehserle, shot and killed one of the unruly male suspects when he mistakenly drew and fired his pistol instead of his Taser. Initially charged with murder, Mehserle was sentenced to 2 years in state prison for involuntary manslaughter [see Force Science News Transmission #154 for details of the role Force Science played in his case].
Domenici was accused of conspiring to “cover up” alleged excessive force by another officer just before the shooting occurred.
After hearing a Force Science analysis of her actions and viewing enhanced video of the chaotic scene, Arbitrator William Riker characterized the official investigation that led to her job termination as “flawed,” incomplete, and lacking in “critical information necessary” for proper evaluation of what took place that fateful morning.
His order that Domenici be restored to her job “would not have been possible” without testimony from Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Institute, says the officer’s attorney, Alison Berry Wilkinson. “He provided a key component of evidence that led to the arbitrator’s decision.”
Act I: Conflict on the Platform
The fight broke out about 0200 in the first car of an 8-car BART train as it came to a stop in Oakland on the east side of San Francisco Bay. The train was “jam-packed” with boisterous New Year’s celebrants, many of whom appeared to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The operator was instructed by a dispatcher to hold the train at the Fruitvale station so that BART officers could remove the combatants.
Ofcr. Tony Pirone was the first responder to hurry upstairs from street level to the reverberant din of the elevated platform where the train was waiting. Domenici, a 5-year veteran of the transit agency and a black belt in karate, followed about 15 seconds later.
On the noisy platform, Pirone quickly detained a cluster of young males and asked Domenici to cover them while he pursued 2 other suspected fighters who had ducked back into the train in an apparent effort to avoid police contact. Domenici directed the group to sit on the platform with their backs against a wall, legs outstretched, and hands on their thighs.
Almost immediately, the platform erupted in chaos. As Pirone struggled to remove subjects later identified as Michael Greer and Oscar Grant III from the train, some of Domenici’s detainees leapt to their feet “highly agitated” and started toward her, yelling that the situation was “all fucked up.” She pushed them back toward the wall and ordered them to sit down and “stay out of it.”
While trying to physically control and monitor them, she stole fast glances over her shoulder to confirm that her partner was ok. He managed to take Greer down and cuff him and then turned his attention to Grant.
Simultaneously, one of Domenici’s detainees started yelling, “Hey, blood!” to several individuals milling nearby. Three other males then began quickly approaching on her right flank. One held something ambiguous in his hand (a cell phone, it turned out); another had his hands in his pockets. “These men had angry looks on their faces, were yelling, and were calling her a ‘fucking bitch,’ ” says Atty. Wilkinson.
Domenici turned fully in their direction, pulled her Taser, and ordered them to step back. She focused particularly on one subject “who would step back for a short while, then step toward her again in a threatening manner while shouting curses,” Wilkinson says.
Other BART officers were swarming onto the platform by now, including Mehserle who headed toward Pirone and a struggling Oscar Grant, about 15 feet away and on the other side of a pillar from Domenici. As Domenici started to raise her Taser to deploy it toward the male who was threatening her, another officer came up behind that subject and tackled him.
Moments later, the fatal and fateful shot was fired by Johannes Mehserle, and 22-year-old Oscar Grant III—ex-convict, current felony probationer, and reputed gangbanger—was dead. Grant was black and unarmed, Mehserle white. A familiar tinderbox was lit.
Roughly 5 minutes had passed since MarySol Domenici bounded up the escalator onto the platform.
Act II: Accusations and Termination
Although Domenici had no direct involvement in Grant’s shooting, she and every other officer on the platform that morning came under intense scrutiny in the firestorm of activist outcry ignited by Mehserle’s bullet.
BART management, in what one observer characterizes as a move to “appease people who were more interested in something other than justice,” hired Meyers Nave, a California legal firm that specializes in public agency law, to investigate the incident for possible violations of departmental policies and procedures.
Apart from Mehserle, who resigned quickly after the shooting and soon faced criminal charges, the firm in its report exonerated 4 officers involved in the fracas of any misconduct. But it leveled serious accusations against Pirone and Domenici, based on statements of witnesses and on video from a platform camera and recording devices collected from various civilians who were on the train.
Among other things, Pirone was judged to have used excessive force in his handling of Greer and Grant, thereby helping to escalate the situation to the point that Grant was shot. Domenici, it was claimed, lied in her original statements and in later testimony about Pirone’s behavior in a conspiratorial effort to cover up his supposed misdeeds.
The conclusions against her ranged from absurdly trivial to significant. She was found to have been untruthful, for example, when she described the noise level on the platform as “very loud.”
More important, it was said that she was being disingenuous when she failed to report and later denied seeing Pirone use excessive force on Greer and Grant, including smashing a fist into Grant’s face with a right hook without reason.
Based on the Meyers Nave findings, both officers were fired. Both appealed their terminations to arbitration. Through their union, the BART Police Officers Assn., they were entitled to representation from the Legal Defense Fund of PORAC, the Peace Officers Research Assn. of California.
Domenici’s case was assigned to veteran police attorney Alison Berry Wilkinson and associate counsel Jeff Martin, who are graduates of the Force Science Institute’s certification course in Force Science Analysis. Wilkinson claimed that Domenici had been fired as “a political scapegoat” amid a “media frenzy.” Her case was arbitrated first.