A man wearing a T-shirt with the words “Stay Loud!” emblazoned on the front pulls the lid off a barbecue, revealing sizzling hot dogs and a rack of ribs. Fold-up chairs dot the sidewalk and a stereo blasts Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.” Two mutts tussle on a nearby strip of lawn as the sun drops over downtown Sacramento. It’s a party. Or at least that’s the feel on this sweaty August evening.
But it’s actually a protest in front of the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office, which is barricaded from the crowd by a chain-link fence.
The fence went up in April, after the local Black Lives Matter chapter began regularly demonstrating outside DA Anne-Marie Schubert’s downtown office. The activists are demanding that she file criminal charges against the two Sacramento Police Department officers who fatally shot Stephon Clark on March 18, six months ago Tuesday.
Tanya Faison, who founded the local Black Lives Matter chapter and helped spark the protests after Clark’s death, sits in a chair near the fence.
“It shouldn’t take this long,” she says of the Clark investigation. “I think everybody’s delaying. I think Sac PD’s delaying. What else do you need to investigate? Those officers are back at work.”
The two officers who shot Clark in the backyard of a Meadowview home — which police later learned was his grandparents’ residence — did in fact return to the force three weeks after the incident, a frequent occurrence in similar situations elsewhere. The department has not made the officers’ names public, and its investigation into the case is ongoing, according to Sgt. Vance Chandler.
Voices on both sides of the debate are poised to collide Tuesday as hundreds of law enforcement officers converge on downtown Sacramento for an annual California Peace Officers Association convention. Black Lives Matter has vowed to shut down the event, even as Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones urged pro-police activists to show up in support of officers.
There likely won’t be a chain-link fence to seal off the Convention Center, or a barbecue to lighten the mood. The only certainty? It will stay loud.
A City On The Edge
Investigations into police use-of-force incidents take “thousands of hours” of work, according to Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who spoke with CapRadio last week. During that interview on Insight with Beth Ruyak, he said the Clark investigation will be “wrapped up very, very soon.” But others familiar with these types of investigations suggest it could be a while longer.
“They take time. And it’s because you don’t want to miss something. You don’t want to get these wrong,” said Rick Braziel, who retired as the city’s chief of police in 2012 and now works with the D.C.-based nonprofit Police Foundation, which seeks to improve law enforcement best practices.
Meanwhile, community members experience “anxiousness and even frustration,” as Steinberg also put it, as these investigations persist. This is in part because the public often knows very little about use-of-force investigations: How they’re conducted, who does them, why they take the time and resources that they do, and even their status or when they’ll be finished. Because in California, the final investigations are seldom if ever made public.
Activists say much of the community’s exasperation stems from the fact that officers are seldom prosecuted.
According to Peter Bibring, director of police practices with the American Civil Liberties Union of California, there was only one law enforcement shooting in the state from 2009 through 2016 that resulted in a criminal charges: the case of Oscar Grant, who was killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer in Oakland on New Year’s Day in 2009. And that officer, Johannes Mehserle, was found guilty only of the lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter — not the murder charge Grant’s family and Oakland community activists called for.
“When you have a police department investigating a potential crime by one of its own and the result being that no charges are filed,” Bibring said, “the public is naturally going to question that.”
And fight for change.
In large part because of the Clark shooting, a measure to make these investigations more transparent now sits on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk. Just weeks ago, California lawmakers passed a bill that would allow public access to police records in use-of-force cases, as well as sustained investigations into officers’ on-the-job dishonesty or sexual assault. It’s supported by the California Police Chiefs Association, but opposed by police unions, including the Sacramento Peace Officers Association.
And some policymakers, such as Democratic Assemblyman Kevin McCarty of Sacramento, even want to change the state’s definition of reasonable use of force by law enforcement — an effort that stalled just days before the California Legislature adjourned for the year last month, but is expected to be revived early next year.
“The rules of engagement are certainly something hard to be a Monday morning quarterback about,” McCarty said. “But we think there’s room for improvement that can save lives and frankly make communities safer and bring more public trust to the law enforcement process.”
As these discussions make the rounds at the Capitol and City Hall, tensions remain high on Sacramento streets. Some of this is attributable to fatal law enforcement encounters involving people of color since Clark’s death: Brandon Smith, who died in police custody on June 6, and Darell Richards, who was shot by SWAT officers on September 6 in a Curtis Park backyard. Investigations into these incidents are ongoing, as well.
As is a possible lawsuit: The Clark family filed a claim against the city earlier this month, seeking $35 million in damages.
In coming weeks, CapRadio will publish two more stories that explore the Stephon Clark case and these types of use-of-force investigations.
Our next piece will examine how the Sacramento Police Department might be conducting the Clark investigation. We’ll look at whether its process is different than in other parts of the country, and public concerns over transparency and conflicts of interest. We’ll also explore how the investigation might conclude.
Our final piece will look forward: Are California policies changing that might impact these types of police investigations? And what are other law enforcement agencies doing in response to the increased attention on use-of-force incidents?
The stories come as the city continues to wait for a resolution that invariably will leave either community members or the police officers who serve them outraged — and could once again ignite protests that bring Sacramento to a grinding halt.
Editor’s note: The story previously noted that additional looks at the Clark shooting would run this week. Instead, they will be publishing in the coming weeks.