BART Cop Pirone’s Convenient Memory Lapses

Jun 18, 2010

Day six of the Oscar Grant trial was dominated by the prosecution’s questioning of Marysol Domenici and Tony Pirone, ex-BART cops who were both fired for their conduct in the incident that led to Grant’s death on New Year’s Day 2009. Today’s proceedings were particularly frustrating because both witnesses seemed to forget whole sections of the night and responded to many of prosecutor David Stein’s questions with blank answers of "I don’t know," or "I don’t remember."

Most conveniently for both Domenici and Pirone, they’d lost memory of moments that might have shown that they deserved responsibility for Grant’s death and the mistreatment of the people on the platform that night. Pirone could not remember how Grant got from his knees onto the floor of the platform. Pirone couldn’t recall whether an abrasion that a man Pirone arrested that night was caused by his aggressive tactics. Pirone could not recall Grant saying anything about not wanting to be tased. Pirone cold not recall saying: "That motherfucker’s going to jail," even though eyewitness reports contradict Pirone’s statement. "It’s like trying to unscramble an egg," Pirone said by way of explaining his fuzzy memories.

Yet Pirone remembered with great clarity that Grant was trying to "wiggle" away while Mehserle tried to handcuff grant. Pirone also remembered an exchange he had with Grant, just moments before he was killed.

"Why are you messing with me? I’ve got a 4-year-old daughter. I respect the police," Pirone remembered Grant telling him. Pirone said he took this as a sign that he’d "finally gotten a dialogue with this person," and that they’d be able to resolve the incident calmly. Pirone said he gave up talking with Grant when Grant called him a "bitch ass n****r." Pirone can be heard throwing the phrase back at him. "I’m a bitch ass n****r? I’m a bitch ass n****r?" Pirone barks, before yelling, "Yeah!" when Mehserle succeeds in slamming Grant down on his back.

Alameda County Assistant District Attorney Stein walked Pirone second-by-second through the timeline of the night, and Pirone repeatedly underplayed his conduct by using euphemisms for his actions. Video showed Pirone pushing Michael Greer, another man who was detained along with Grant, against the concrete wall of the BART station. Pirone called it a "nudge." Stein asked him about a portion of the video that showed Pirone driving his knee into Grant’s thigh. Pirone recalled it this way: "I tried to put my knee on whatever was in his pocket."

"As police officers, everyone is a threat," said Pirone. "Especially in a rapidly evolving environment." Pirone would say this several times over the course of his five hours on the witness stand. When Stein asked Pirone why he and Mehserle put Grant in handcuffs after he was shot, Pirone said: "Because I still didn’t know whether he had a weapon or not." "Why would you need to search him then?" asked Stein. "Because everyone is considered a threat until proven otherwise," Pirone responded. But ultimately, Pirone never got around to searching Grant, or any of the four other men who were arrested and detained that night.

Pirone is the cop who’s perhaps most reviled by community members, more than even defendant Johannes Mehserle himself. Pirone can be seen in several videos kneeing the young men on the train platform that night, slamming Grant against a concrete wall, assisting Mehserle in arresting Grant by pressing Grant’s face down into the floor of the train platform. And so there was a great deal of anticipation surrounding his testimony.

The several days of expert testimony earlier this week, however, puts this kind of cop aggression into perspective. Cops are legally allowed to use force if they consider a suspect a threat to themselves or people around them. And the kind of force a cop eventually chooses, be it simple verbal persuasion–how’s that for a euphemism–or lethal force, is up to their discretion.

At some point in Pirone’s testimony, Stein, who often gets a little tripped up over the questions he’s trying to ask his witnesses, got interrupted by Judge Perry, who has taken to rephrasing some of Stein’s questions for witnesses in permissable terms.

"As a police officer, you put your hands on people," said Judge Perry matter of factly, by way of establishing a baseline understanding of the context. "You’ve kneed people before, had close quarters combat. You use your hands, is that correct?" Pirone responded yes. And then the questioning continued.

Regardless of the ultimate verdict, these trial proceedings have successfully made the case that most people are overreacting when they say a police officer is out of line and breaking the law for using physical and lethal force to subdue people. The kind of aggressive, violent police conduct that policed communities decry may often be unwarranted, but it’s perfectly within the law. And that’s probably the most terrifying part of it all.