OAKLAND — A veteran San Francisco Bay Area transit police sergeant who was fatally shot by another officer during a search knew the dangers of the profession and once remarked that it was fortunate that no agency officers had been killed on the job, colleagues said Wednesday.
Bay Area Rapid Transit police Sgt. Tom Smith was also described as a respected, sincere, passionate and sometimes opinionated person who always looked out for others.
“Tom knew that law enforcement was incredibly dangerous,” BART Police Lt. Lance Haight said. “I do remember him once commenting that BART had never had an officer die in the line of duty and how fortunate that had never taken place.”
An emotional BART Police Chief Kenton Rainey said the department was in shock over Tuesday’s death of Smith, a 23-year veteran and the first BART officer killed in the line of duty in its 42-year history.
“We’re numb. Please give us some time to grieve,” Rainey told reporters at a news conference.
Smith was shot while authorities searched an apartment for a smartphone, laptop bag and related items stolen during an armed robbery at a train station in Oakland.
Rainey declined to disclose any further details about how Smith was shot, deferring those questions to the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, which is investigating the shooting.
Authorities were trying to determine whether an officer’s weapon discharged accidentally, or if Smith was mistaken for someone else, Alameda County sheriff’s Sgt. J.D. Nelson said. Either way, it was an accident, he added.
Rainey said there were seven BART officers and a sheriff’s deputy at the scene when the shooting occurred. Five of the BART officers were detectives in plainclothes, including Smith, and the officers knew a suspect was already in custody, he said, noting the officers were following agency policies and training.
Rainey declined to name the officer who shot Smith but said he was “extremely upset.”
“We want to give him and his family a chance to come to grips with what’s going on and what’s happening,” he said.
Wearing bulletproof vests, the officers began the search by knocking twice on the door of the apartment, Nelson said. The knocks went unanswered, but the door was unlocked, so several officers stepped inside with guns drawn, he said.
“If your door is unlocked, it usually means that somebody’s there, so I’m sure that was in their mind that somebody was in the apartment at the time,” he said.
Nelson declined to elaborate on the shooting but said an officer fired at least one shot.
Smith, 42, of San Ramon was in charge of the BART detective unit. He is survived by his wife, also a BART officer, a 6-year-old daughter and two brothers who are also in law enforcement in the San Francisco Bay Area, Rainey said.
“Tommy was a great law enforcement officer, but an even better son, brother, husband, father and friend,” Rainey said. “He touched many lives in a positive way both professionally and personally and he will be sorely missed.”
After he was shot, Smith was taken to Eden Medical Center in Castro Valley, where he died. Television reports showed lines of officers outside the hospital saluting as their fallen comrade’s body, covered with a large American flag, was loaded into a coroner’s van.
BART police have been the center of other controversies. On New Year’s Day 2009, Oscar Grant III, an unarmed black passenger, was shot and killed at the Fruitvale station after reports of a fight.
Officer Johannes Mehserle, who is white, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to two years minus time served.
An independent auditor said last month that BART police have made significant progress in meeting reforms instituted after Grant’s death, including increased officer training about bias and other issues, along with better reporting about incidents involving use of force.