The full transcript of Jonathan Bellusa’s deposition testimony, which is a “rough draft” meaning that it was processed onto a computer through a software program, is available in full HERE. The transcript has numerous spelling and punctuation errors, and those errors were corrected in the full summary, below. A press release about the testimony is available HERE.
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:
- “Chief Sarna transposed my face and another officer’s face [onto a] poster of a movie [and wrote] ‘Bellusa’ and that officer’s name above pictures [of] people holding each other… I went and dealt with Chief Sarna: ‘Why did you put this up here? Why did you send this?… His words were: “You guys… look like a couple of fags.’”
- “I was told [by] Chief Sarna how he swindled [a] millionaire [for] $5,000 for a police dog.”
- Chief Sarna also told me that him and [his assistant] Jenny Wong tried to get a bank account” that would apparently benefit Sarna in collecting traffic violation fines.
- “Pete Sarna [and Lou Silva, a former OUSD officer and current district-wide Campus Security and Safety Manager] were sending their personal cars down to a shop on 16th Avenue… [and] were overcharging the police cars” in order to have their personal cars repaired for free. “Silva bragged about it.”
- “I found out that he [Sarna] called another officer [and] told him: ‘Do not report what had happened,’” Bellusa testified, referring to the post-golf racial slurs.
- “Chief Sarna instructed officers… [to charge for overtime to] drive the Superintendent around on various errands… Chief Sarna also did this with a person that was friends [with] one of the school board members.”
- Officers in the department were not disciplined for acts of “untruthfulness… theft [and] failure to report inappropriate unethical behavior.” Those officers included Barhin Bhatt, who engaged in each of these acts.
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.