An Oakland school police sergeant is raising more questions about whether the Oakland Unified School District interfered with the investigation into a high-profile officer-involved shooting that left a 20-year-old man dead.
Sgt. Jonathan Bellusa spoke exclusively to the Investigative Unit to reveal his account of what happened the night his partner Sgt. Barhin Bhatt shot and killed Raheim Brown in self-defense. Bellusa said he believes the Oakland Unified School District violated its own policies in an attempt to get both sergeants’ stories to match, and that when he tried to question the procedure he was shut down and retaliated against.
“It is my hope that things change for the district,” Bellusa said. “There are good people who work for the police department and I want things that were made wrong to be made right.”
On the night of Jan. 22, 2011 Bellusa and Bhatt were on patrol outside Skyline High School’s winter dance. The two sergeants approached a car with flashing hazard lights. Inside, they found Brown and a female driver, and the smell marijuana in what they believed to be a stolen car. When Brown refused to get out of the car and attempted to stab Bellusa with a screwdriver, Bhatt fired multiple shots at Brown, killing him.
As the investigation into the shooting unfolded, Bellusa says he began to question the process. In a sworn deposition he gave in February, Bellusa said that he and Bhatt were sequestered and awaiting questions from Oakland Police Department homicide investigators. He testified that before he gave his statement to OPD, school district superintendent Tony Smith and then school police chief Peter Sarna began asking their own questions about what happened. Bellusa said that the school district’s attorney Jacqueline Minor was also in the room.
According to the deposition, Bellusa said that Smith “wanted to know what happened.” He said he told them that Brown started stabbing at him, that Barhin shot him and that he saw a gun in the car.
When asked if the superintendent said anything else Bellusa stated, “There was a time he left the room and he came back and then he said specifically, 'Jon, tell me where the gun was. Tell me everything you can remember about the gun and what it looked like.'” Bellusa said that conversation took place before OPD investigators interviewed him.
“No one else should be talking to these people,” said Richard Lichten, a southern California-based police practices expert with more than 35 years of law enforcement experience. “In a case like this the witness officer and shooter officer should only be talking to homicide [investigators]. So if the police chief and the superintendent…and a lawyer for the school district contact the witness or shooter officer and ask questions about what happened, that is not appropriate.”
OUSD spokesman Troy Flint said the administrators acted appropriately, though they would not comment further for this story because of pending litigation.
“I’m sure someone may be able to dig into the policy and find an incident where maybe one thing was said that was in contrast to policy,” Flint said, “but overall yes, we did follow the policy.”
When asked if he feels it is appropriate for the superintendent and chief to ask specific questions about the gun as Bellusa alleges, Flint said “It is appropriate for them to ask questions, to express concern and get some understanding of the incident.”
Flint questions why Bellusa didn’t speak out about his concerns until months after the shooting and said the department is investigating questionable behavior Bellusa exhibited.
“I can’t say anything stronger at this point,” Flint said.
Bellusa is currently on paid administrative leave. He said he was approved for stress leave in Sept. 2011, and that just days later he was put under investigation—he claims as retaliation. He denies any notion that he is a problem child for the school police department and that he is speaking out only for personal gain.
“I got promoted to sergeant and watch commander and put my heart and soul into that department,” Bellusa said, adding that he was once named interim police chief in 2009.
Bellusa first came forward to the Investigative Unit in February to expose what he calls a cover up in the district’s police force. At that time, Bellusa’s attorney Dan Siegel submitted a claim to the district, which OUSD rejected. Siegel plans to file a formal lawsuit against the district on Wednesday alleging that the district retaliated against Bellusa for his refusal to conform his testimony to that of Bhatt.
“It is part of a pattern of behavior to prevent officers from doing what Sgt. Bellusa has done,” Siegel said, “which is go public with his concerns about the way in which he was treated and the [way the] school district police department treated this investigation.”
Siegel said it won’t just be Bellusa’s word against district administrators.
“There are other people in OPD whose identities will be disclosed, who will testify that the way the district handled this was all wrong and the way they interfered with the investigation,” Siegel said.
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