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Tense Moments In Stephon Clark Protests Could Have Turned Violent, But They Didn’t. Here’s Why.

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

Demonstrators protesting the police shooting of Stephon Clark face off with police in downtown Sacramento.

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

At a Black Lives Matter march last week in downtown Sacramento, a crowd of protesters who had already claimed a rush hour intersection walked right up to police officers and chanted provocatively in their faces.

“Get back, get back — we want freedom, freedom,” they called out. “All those racist-ass cops? We don’t need ’em, need ’em!”

It was one of the many tense moments since police officers shot Stephon Clark last month that could have escalated into violence or mass arrests.

But it didn’t. After a few minutes, the cops backed off and retreated down the alleyway. The protesters marched in their wake, victoriously chanting “Whose streets? Our streets!”

A short while later, some of the demonstrators broke off from the main group and marched into clogged traffic. But organizers called them back.

There were no arrests at that day’s protest, and no violence.

It looked like a deliberate effort from both law enforcement and organizers to keep the peace, even as the community burned with anger. And it was: Police and protesters have so far learned to at least co-exist — if not work together.

“It is very deliberate from City Hall and it is very deliberate from the police department,” says Mayor Darrell Steinberg when asked about efforts to de-escalate tensions during protests, adding that protest organizers “have shown remarkable restraint, as well.”

Although protesters have filled the streets of Sacramento almost nonstop since last month’s police shooting of Stephon Clark — blocking Sacramento Kings’ fans from games, jamming drivers during their rush hour commutes, and packing the city council chambers for two public forums, including Tuesday night — there’s been little violence, and just two arrests.

“For the most part, we’ve allowed people to take streets and intersections,” says Sacramento police Chief Daniel Hahn. “That hasn’t come without anger in our community about the delays, or not getting into the game. And I feel for them. But I think it was the right decision at those times. Because it didn’t lead to more tragedy in our city.”

“There has been police that have held some restraint,” says community activist Berry Accius. “And there has been great community leadership that has been able to hold back certain aggressions and agitation, as well as check those agitators that are in the protest that are the ones that sometimes try to take it to the next level — to where police will get violent, and then something else happens.”

Another protest, Saturday night, marked a contrast in law enforcement styles.

It was just outside city limits, under Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department jurisdiction. Protesters surrounded two sheriff’s vehicles, pounding and kicking the cars. The first driver was able to escape the crowd. The second deputy hit a protester, then left the scene.

Later, the sheriff’s helicopter ordered protesters to disburse or risk arrest, and dozens of deputies lined up in riot gear.

“When the exercise of rights transitions from the mere inconvenience of others to impacting their rights – whether it’s the public, the protesters themselves, or my officers – the sheriff’s department must and will intervene,” Sheriff Scott Jones said at his news conference Monday about Saturday night’s events.

If rank-and-file Sacramento Police Department officers have a problem with protesters calling them racist to their face, they aren’t saying so publicly.

Asked if any of his union members are second-guessing Hahn’s direction to let the activists take the streets rather than arrest them, Sacramento Police Officers Association President Tim Davis said he thinks “the line that we’re taking is balanced.”

“To hear people that hate you, that are angry at you, that are yelling at you, that are up in your face — that affects you,” Davis said. “But you can’t let it affect the way you do your job. You can’t let it affect the professionalism that you have. And our officers are doing an outstanding job out there.”

Accius says police should apply that same professionalism to potential shooting situations.

“So you can show restraint and not retaliate when a group of people are calling you every name in the book,” he says. “That goes to show that it’s a possibility to show restraint on killing black people.”

Unlike Ferguson and Baltimore, many cities where police shootings led to protests have avoided full-scale riots and mass arrests. And it turns out, there’s a playbook for how to do that.

“If a police department is close to the community, listens to the community, and treats the community with respect and dignity, the chance for their being urban chaos after a bad shooting is greatly reduced,” says David Couper, a former police chief in Madison, Wisconsin, who writes the Improving Police blog.

Couper likens it to making deposits in the community’s trust bank, year after year — so that after a divisive police shooting, a city can make a withdrawal.

“There is either a very robust bank account of trust, or it’s empty,” he says. “You build relationships before you have to go to the trust bank.”

Sacramento’s trust bank isn’t empty — at least for now. The city has implemented community-oriented policing for years, and although Hahn has only been police chief for less than a year, he’s built deep relationships with neighborhood groups.

“We’re gonna continue to be transparent, we’re gonna seek answers, we’re gonna be fair, and we’re gonna use this moment to create a movement around investing in our communities,” Steinberg says.

The mayor also credits Hahn’s “incredible transparency” by releasing body camera and helicopter footage of the Clark shooting just three days after the incident. The department could have taken most or all of the 30-day deadline required by a city ordinance, which was adopted in the aftermath of the 2016 Sacramento police shooting of unarmed black man Joseph Mann.

“The country’s watching,” Steinberg says. “And what the country has seen is not Ferguson. It’s seen, in many ways, the opposite.”

Of course, that could change if the official investigation now under way does not lead to what protesters are demanding: criminal charges against the officers who shot Clark.

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