Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones is suggesting that “paid protesters” inflamed Saturday’s demonstration and vigil for Stephon Clark and antagonized his deputies — and that the deputy whose vehicle struck an activist was unaware he’d hit someone.
“Unfortunately, in many protests that have developed to this scope, there are professional protesters and professional instigators that infiltrate the protests for their own purposes,” the sheriff said at a press conference Monday.
At approximately 8:45 p.m. on Saturday, two sheriff's deputies attempted to navigate their SUVs through a crowd marching on Florin Road. Sheriff’s department video of the incident, which was shared at Jones’ press conference, shows protesters surrounding a deputy’s vehicle.
The deputy in the first sheriff’s car used a loudspeaker to tell the demonstrators to stand back, but some cursed at the officer and kicked the vehicle and caused damage, according to the video.
The first SUV eventually made it through the crowd. But dashboard-camera footage from the second deputy’s vehicle shows the SUV collided with a protester, 61-year-old Wanda Cleveland, then drive off.
Both deputies continued without stopping after the collision. As they left the scene, Jones says a protester shattered the rear window of the second SUV.
An ambulance took Cleveland to the hospital, where she was treated for injuries. Jones insisted that the deputy driving the second SUV was not aware that he hit her.
"There's a high likelihood that he did not even know that he collided with that protestor,” Jones said.
But Claire White, an attorney representing Cleveland, said it’s not feasible that the deputy didn’t realize that he’d hit someone.
“If he didn’t notice that he ran over somebody, I think that officer requires some severe remedial training,” she said, adding that “they teach convoys to keep on driving in places like Baghdad, not places like Sacramento.”
White said that Cleveland does not yet know the full extent of her injuries and is receiving treatment. She added that her law firm is investigating the incident and is prepared to sue the sheriff’s department.
Earlier Monday, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg criticized sheriff’s department actions on Saturday night, which also included helicopter announcements ordering demonstrators to disburse or face arrest for unlawful assembly, and dozens of sheriff’s deputies and CHP officers lined up in rows wearing riot gear.
“I wasn't pleased with what I saw Saturday night. At all,” Steinberg said in an interview with Capital Public Radio.
While he did not criticize Jones directly, the mayor had warm words for Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn and his department’s response to protests over the last two weeks.
“We have a great police chief in this city, who understands the pulse of the community and who represents the men and women of the police department, but he's also of the community,” Steinberg said. “And that's in contrast to what we saw Saturday night.”
At Monday’s press conference, Jones reiterated that he thought some of the protesters at the event were hired to instigate violence.
“We do know, because of our intelligence and because of our history with these folks, that there are paid protesters and paid people to instigate,” he said.
White — who is vice president of the National Lawyers Guild, which oversees the legal observers present on Saturday night at the demonstration — said Jones is selling “snake oil” to the public with this claim. “This allegation that these people are paid, or that they’re outside agitators, has no basis in reality,” she said.
Although Jones played video from one of the vehicles’ dashboard cameras at the news conference, the sheriff’s department did not make the patrol car video footage available to media organizations, arguing that it was an investigative file, not a public record. It also declined to provide the names of the deputies involved in the accident.
Jones did, however, share photos of the shattered rear window of one SUV, and dents and damage on the other, which he said was caused by protesters.
The sheriff said no protesters are being charged. He also described the vigil and protest march as a “largely peaceful and meaningful assembly.”
Former Sacramento chief of police Rick Braziel was tapped by Jones to help with the California Highway Patrol’s investigation of the SUV collision with Cleveland.
Saturday’s vigil was organized by the ANSWER Coalition and took place nearly two weeks after Clark was shot by Sacramento police officers — and one day after an independent autopsy commissioned by his family found he was shot eight times, mostly in the back.
Demonstrators targeted the sheriff’s department because they say a deputy in a helicopter pointed Clark out to Sacramento police when he was killed on March 18.
Protests and vigils have occurred nearly every day since Clark was shot, but there has been little violence or vandalism and only two arrests.
Saturday night’s vigil was in the county and under the sheriff’s jurisdiction.