Faced with anger over police tactics in minority neighborhoods and low morale within the Sacramento Police Department, Chief Sam Somers Jr. announced his retirement on Tuesday.
At a news conference at City Hall, Somers said it was “bittersweet” to leave a department he’s been with for nearly 33 years.
In recent weeks, he has faced pressure from city leaders to announce his departure, according to three City Hall officials with knowledge of the situation.
Somers has weathered frustration by City Council members and community leaders most recently over the police killing of a mentally ill black man in July. Joseph Mann, 50, was armed with a knife and acting erratically, but many in the black community and within City Hall have questioned if deadly force was necessary after witnesses said he was not an immediate threat to officers when he was shot 16 times.
Somers disputed that the timing of his departure was forced by the Mann case. “That is absolutely not what happened,” he said.
Somers, 53, said he made the decision to retire earlier this year and chose to leave Dec. 9 because it is close to his birthday and he considers the departure a “present to myself.” He is scheduled to leave four days before Mayor-elect Darrell Steinberg is due to take office.
An interim chief will likely be named in coming weeks, according to city spokeswoman Linda Tucker, but no decision has been made yet. She added that the process for selecting a new chief would likely involve community input.
The Mann family has made requests to view video footage of Joseph Mann’s killing and has been denied by the city, according to attorney John Burris, who filed a federal lawsuit and city claim. Burris said he may consider asking the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate.
Some City Council members this month made an unprecedented request to see police footage of the Mann shooting. But they later decided against viewing it on the advice of an outside lawyer hired by City Attorney James Sanchez to defend the city against the family’s lawsuit and claim.
Somers said controversy over the release of the video did not factor into his announcement, but Mayor Kevin Johnson and Councilman Allen Warren called for its release again during the meeting.
“This video needs to be seen,” Johnson said. “This isn’t about police officers against the community. This is about creating a real transparent environment.”
Councilman Allen Warren agreed. “I am once again requesting that the council see the video and that we make the video public so we can all see what happened during the course of those few minutes.”
Johnson directed Sanchez and City Manager John Shirey to provide direction on the legalities around releasing the video, and said it should at least be made available for Mann’s family to view.
Somers said that he did not oppose the release of the video if that was what city leaders decide. “The video doesn’t scare me,” he said. “If we want to release it, let’s release it.”
Robert Mann, Joseph Mann’s brother, said the announcement provided some accountability for how his brother’s death has been handled by the city. “The chief of police stepping down today, that shows one step in the process of accountability, but there is still more work to be done,” he said.
On Tuesday, black activists and religious leaders – with Robert Mann among them – addressed the council in a special presentation to voice frustration about the case and demand more civilian oversight of police.
But Richard Owen, head of Law Enforcement Accountability Directive, said his group had not called for Somers’ ouster and that “a lot of people believe (Somers) did a lot of effective outreach.”
“Unfortunately, what we need is more than public relations and community outreach,” Owens said. “What we need is change in policies and practices and procedures.”
Councilman Larry Carr said the use of deadly force by police needs to be examined and that the council needs to set expectations for policy and review of the Police Department. A police shooting “is the most profound thing that can happen in a city ... and we have to make sure it is handled properly,” he said.
Somers also faced internal criticism. Morale within the Sacramento Police Department is low, based partly on public perception of the force, according to a source with knowledge of the department.
Tim Davis, head of the union that represents officers, said that Sacramento city officers receive less pay than counterparts in surrounding cities, another contributor to low morale. “We’re struggling with pay and people leaving,” he said. “We’ve been asking the city to fix the pay inequity.”
Shirey, who appointed Somers in 2013, praised him in a Monday email to staff. “In making the appointment, one of the things that impressed me about Sam was the fact he had managed every division within the department,” he wrote. “He has exhibited exemplary leadership in a difficult job.”