In the three and a half years since the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in Staten Island, there have been numerous police involved killings that have captured the attention of the public. Some have looked very bad, some have triggered indictments, some have triggered criminal trials, few have culminated in real change or accountability.
The death of Stephon Clark, 22 years old, in Sacramento last Sunday has captured national attention – with video showing Mr. Clark appearing to pose no threat to two Sacramento police officers who entered his backyard and confronted him, firing 20 shots at him and killing him.
The police claimed he was holding a weapon, but he was holding a cell phone. The video shows the officers yelling at him to show them his hands but they are never heard identifying themselves as police.
“Show me your hands! Gun!” an officer shouts. Another officer yells, “Show me your hands!” And then: “Gun, gun, gun!”
Both officers open fire.
A department statement said that “prior to the shooting, the involved officers saw the suspect facing them, advance forward with his arms extended, and holding an object in his hands. At the time of the shooting, the officers believed the suspect was pointing a firearm at them.”
The problem – Mr. Clark had no weapon, only a cell phone.
This is not the first controversial killing of a black man in Sacramento in recent years. The Vanguard has had extensive coverage of the shootings of Joseph Mann and Dazion Flenaugh.
As the ACLU of Northern California put it in a statement this week, “We see stories like Clark’s again and again. Police for too long have used excessive force against communities of color, killing Black people without justification and without consequence. Racist policing is a systemic problem, not a series of isolated incidents.
“Being a Black man in a hooded sweatshirt should not be a death sentence. Trained police officers should use the least amount of force necessary.”
But there are problems and California state law “makes the investigations into police killings and any resulting discipline, or corrective action, completely secret.”
The ACLU states, “That must change. The public deserves to get a detailed account of the actual investigation. The community has a right to know what happened. The residents of Sacramento deserve to know how police, who act in their name, came to take the life of an unarmed father of two in his own backyard.”
But this is the problem.
A good editorial in the Bee yesterday: http://www.sacbee.com/opinion/editorials/article206590854.html.
They note that we know a lot about what happened, but there are things we don’t know. What we don’t know, they argue is “[e]nough about the two Sacramento police officers who killed him. We don’t know if either has been accused of crimes in this state in the past. We don’t know if they have a history of using excessive force here. We don’t know how many times – or even if – either has pulled a gun on or shot a civilian.”
The Bee argues that is unlikely to change because of the police unions in California, as “the personnel records of peace officers are completely confidential, only to be discussed in closed-door hearings. The public isn’t privy to information on promotions, discipline, annual appraisals or ‘any other information the disclosure of which would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.’”
Indeed, a few years ago, after the 2006 Copley Press decision regarding public access to records of misconduct charges, the Vanguard went to a state legislature committee hearing on a bill that would legislatively reverse the decision closing police records to the public, but as soon as law enforcement marched in, in full uniform, the otherwise liberal Democrats on the committee caved like a house of cards.
How tough is it? The Bee notes, “Even if officers are found to have violated department policy in shooting a suspect, troubled cops get special privileges that make it extremely difficult to fire them and almost as difficult for the public to learn whether they’ve been disciplined appropriately.”
Back in 2012, former Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso lamented the fact that the POBR (Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights) Act led to delays and also lack of access to police officers in the investigation into the pepper-spraying incident.
The Bee points out: “The only time this stuff typically comes out is when a judge orders it released as part of a criminal case or lawsuit.”
And they argue, “The public deserves to know that officers we encounter don’t have a propensity for brutality. We deserve to know that the punishment will serve the greater good if an officer violates policy.”
But it is more than that. This is not only a transparency issue, it’s an accountability issue. The public cannot demand that police officials and city officials hold police officers accountable for their actions without having access to the information they need.
That is part of the problem – everyone has a different opinion, but when the authorities are not able to conduct a full public discussion of what happened, what went wrong, and how to prevent future tragedies, the public, especially people of color, lose trust.
The LA Times interviewed two “experts” that illustrate this problem.
The first, a deputy sheriff and legal advisor up in Plumas County, Ed Obayashi, called the shooting “reasonable,” adding that “a cellphone can easily be perceived as a gun in that environment of poor light.
“This guy wasn’t complying with orders and raised his hands with an object in his hands,” he said.
On the other hand, Geoffrey Alpert, a University of South Carolina criminologist who studies police chases and shootings, disagreed.
“It doesn’t look good,” Professor Alpert said, noting that “the yelling of the word ‘gun’ here seems to trigger the shooting.”
“The officers are going to have to explain all 20 shots. They are going to have to justify repeatedly shooting,” he said. “The bottom line is we have a young African American man with a cellphone being shot dead by police.”
So now what? We have another incident in Sacramento involving an unarmed black man being shot and killed by police and a system that seems unable to handle it.
—David M. Greenwald reporting