The Stephon Clark shooting by Sacramento police officers in March and the protests that followed have made this year’s campaign for district attorney unlike any local race in recent memory.
Demonstrators have protested outside the DA’s office for nearly 10 weeks. They’re demanding that the officers who fatally shot Clark be charged, but they also want broader reforms to the justice system.
With that as a backdrop, Noah Phillips, who has 20 years in the DA's office as a prosecutor, is challenging his boss, Anne-Marie Schubert. They’re the only two candidates in a contest that will be decided on June 5.
His campaign is partly based on the notion that fewer people would be prosecuted if he is elected. During a recent interview, he said he would introduce “neighborhood courts” into communities, which he described as "a form of restorative justice that allows community partners to bring together the victim and the offender to resolve that case before they get a record and the cycle continues.”
Schubert, the incumbent seeking a second term, said in response to issues surrounding the Clark case that neighborhood courts would be an option she's willing to consider.
"We'll look at other models in other counties that are doing it,” she said during a recent interview. “But what types of crimes could we avoid in the criminal justice system [and] bring folks together to try to see if we can resolve issues without actually resulting in prosecution?”
She noted that specialized courts for veterans, the mentally ill, victims of human trafficking and people with drug problems already exist.
Many of the demonstrators outside Schubert’s office claim that people of color do not trust the DA’s office, in particular because of the perception that it does not hold officers accountable. When asked about this, Schubert noted her office has prosecuted law enforcement officers for rape, welfare fraud and insurance fraud.
But between 2014 and 2016, Schubert's office reviewed 27 law enforcement shootings and filed no charges. That included the case of Joseph Mann:
In 2016 Sacramento police officers responded to calls of a man with a knife behaving erratically. One caller said he had a gun. While in their vehicles, officers gave Mann orders over their loudspeakers. Backup arrived in the form of John Tennis and Randy Lazoya, who attempted to run over Mann with their police vehicle. After, they exited their car and ran toward Mann, who stood still on the sidewalk holding a knife. The officers shot him 14 times. Mann’s family says he had a history of mental illness, and methamphetamine was found in his blood. He was not carrying a gun.
Schubert defended the decision not to charge the officers: "The fact is we have a job to do, which is to follow the facts of the law, whether we like the facts of the law or not. And in that particular case, that decision was reviewed, we followed the facts of the law.”
There have been similar calls for Schubert to press charges in the Clark case. When the time comes to make a decision in that shooting, Schubert says her office will have two questions to answer: "One, was a crime committed? And can we prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Phillips criticized Schubert’s oversight of law enforcement, including the Mann case. He says she should have done more during the past four years as the county's "chief enforcement officer."
"The district attorney is the primary person who should be making the changes to law enforcement, whether it be their training, whether it be looking at their records or whether it be fundamentally altering how they are interacting with people in the community so the system works for everybody including black and brown people," he said.
Phillips has called for the Mann case to be “re-evaluated.”
Combined, the two candidates have accepted $2 million in campaign contributions. Schubert has collected more than $400,000 from law enforcement groups and former or current officers since 2015. Phillips says the donations have tipped the scales of justice in the officers’ favor during deadly encounters with the public.
Schubert says raising money is a necessary part of campaigning. "It doesn't change my ability to do my job fairly and ethically. And I think my record, and the record of our office, demonstrates that we're going to prosecute people no matter what their profession is, and we have in fact prosecuted police officers for a multitude of different kinds of crime," Schubert said.
Phillips has accepted more than half a million dollars from a political action committee backed by liberal financier George Soros. Schubert has criticized these campaign donations, arguing that it is an outside billionaire meddling in local matters.
But Phillips defended the fundraising. "We're proud to have his support,” he said, “[Soros’] support complements what we have already earned: well over $300,000 from local people here in Sacramento County that are interested in the message of criminal justice reform."
Phillips is facing misconduct allegations that he offered a lesser charge in exchange for testimony in a murder case. He says his name will be cleared. He also notes Schubert accused her opponent in 2014 of prosecutorial misconduct.
Schubert has been praised by other district attorneys for creating the task force that eventually arrested a suspect in the East Area Rapist/Golden State Killer case from the mid-’70s to ’80s.
In response to Phillips’ claim that her role in the arrest was not crucial, Schubert conceded she isn’t an investigator. But she says she did bring the DAs together from the counties where the East Area Rapist struck, and provided two investigators who worked on the case. She also has a reputation for prosecuting cases using DNA evidence and worked with the Contra Costa County DA’s office on the case in the early 1990s.