My View: Outrage at Stephon Clark’s Death Is Not Enough

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Photo courtesy of the LA Times

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


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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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10 thoughts on “My View: Outrage at Stephon Clark’s Death Is Not Enough”

  1. PhilColeman

    “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.”

    That comment has no legal,moral, or practical merit.  Zero validity. I have ownership and familiarity with both, and a cell phone and a handgun are not remotely similar in appearance or function. A candy bar or a screwdriver looks more like a handgun than does a cell phone.

    To “perceive” them as looking the same–and then say such a standard is reasonable, and therefore justifies the discharge of a firearm–is a false representation of law and law enforcement policy. And as has been said here before, the mere”fear” of potential mortal danger, without tangible evidence to support that fear, is legally and administratively indefensible.

  2. Tia Will

    I am amazed that the public seems to have been relatively quiescent on this issue. Police are public employees, paid by taxpayers to protect our lives and property, hopefully in that order. They are not, or should not be seen, as some kind of elite “law and order” team that exerts control for the sake of control. The POBR has become a shield behind which police hide what otherwise would clearly be unacceptable behavior.

    The police are our employees. Their actions should be transparent, videos should be available for public review, we should be able to evaluate through civilian committees their selection procedures,  training programs, selection for advancement processes, and other internal processes just as any other employer has control over the hiring, training and advancement of their employees. In what other employer/employee relationship are the employees given the sole discretion to monitor their own affairs free from employer supervision?

    Coming from a field in which life and death decisions are frequently made, this is baffling to me. In medicine, it is the employer who makes the decision about the criteria for employment, the training ( both preliminary and continuing), the conditions for ongoing employment, the selection criteria for advancement, and the circumstances under which one can be fired.

    I understand the perceived need for secrecy or confidentiality. When I first became a doctor in 1983, there was little transparency. We were advised not to apologize, not to admit error, and to be as circumspect as possible in our discussion of what really happened in the case of an adverse event. Through the years, this philosophy ( at least in my group) has changed dramatically. We are encouraged to apologize for adverse outcomes, explain what happened and why, and what steps will be taken to prevent a recurrence. This of course presupposes that preventive steps are in place. Ultimately it is much easier to function in an open, honest system than it is to know that you are obscuring the truth, ie lying to protect yourself and your colleagues, with the perversion of integrity such lies promote.

  3. Eric Gelber

    Ed Obayashi called the shooting , “reasonable,” adding that “a cellphone can easily be perceived as a gun in that environment of poor light.”

    He should have added, “Especially if a black male is holding it …” If a cell phone can easily be perceived as a gun, that’s all the more reason to exercise restraint. It doesn’t make the shooting reasonable.
     

  4. Jeff M

    I read an article a few days ago comparing US crime and cop shootings to several other countries.  One statistic stood out to me… US cops are 35-times more likely to be attacked/stabbed/shot/harmed by suspects than are cops in Germany.

    There is certainly a problem with cops being overly reliant on their guns when attempting to apprehend suspects, but we would be fatally remiss to not accept the fact that US cops operate in an environment where they are much more likely to be harmed by suspects.

    1. John Hobbs

      ” US cops are 35-times more likely to be attacked/stabbed/shot/harmed by suspects than are cops in Germany.”

      Not really the topic, but I’ll take a bite.

      German cops have lost about 400 officers in the line of duty since 1949. They lost 2 last year, I believe. Their stats indicate that they lose 6 per year in the line of duty, unspecified whether resulting from violence or accident. They kill about 10 people per year on average.

      Last year, 134 US cops lost their lives on duty. They killed 1134 people.

      Back to the topic at hand, this event occurred 8 blocks from my house. This is a working class family neighborhood that has experience neglect and abuse from the police for a long time. while it was emotionally wrenching to know that this had happened in our community, it was sadly not surprising. Cop candidates are deselected for intelligence and compassion and the ones who pass under the bar are then trained to shoot first and lie about it afterward.

    2. Eric Gelber

      … we would be fatally remiss to not accept the fact that US cops operate in an environment where they are much more likely to be harmed by suspects.

      Meaning what? U.S. cops should be given more latitude than German cops when they shoot unarmed men? The standard of reasonableness should be lower?

    3. David Greenwald Post author

      They are much less likely to be harmed by subjects than they are to harm subjects. Moreover, shootings of police officers is at an historical low, and yet shooting by police officers remain historically high.

      1. David Greenwald Post author

        From Radley Balko: “I’ve pointed out a number of times that the job of police officer has been getting progressively safer for a generation. Last year was the safest year for cops since the early 1960s. And it isn’t just because the police are carrying bigger guns or have better armor. Assaults on police officers have been dropping over the same period. Which means that not only are fewer cops getting killed on the job, people in general are less inclined to try to hurt them. Yes, working as a police officer is still more dangerous than, say, working as a journalist. (Or at least a journalist here in the U.S.) But a cop today is about as likely to be murdered on the job as someone who merely resides in about half of the country’s 75 largest cities.”

  5. Howard P

    The headline is correct… some of the Sac protesters apparently want blood… from civilian women… they apparently called for a woman to be shot 20 times… another woman in a SUV had her vehicle attacked, and significantly damaged it.

    http://www.sacbee.com/news/local/crime/article206604394.html

    ‘Justice’ or revenge/payback?

    Like these women had anything to do with the apparent murder… appears not to matter to some…

    Civil disobedience is one thing… violent behavior toward innocent women, something else entirely…

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