The mentally ill man killed by two Sacramento police officers in July yelled “Come on, bitch” and confronted them with a knife immediately before being shot, according to the officers’ attorney.
Speaking on behalf of officers John Tennis and Randy Lozoya, attorney Judith Odbert said in a three-page memo, “The character assassination of these two officers who have dedicated their lives to the protection of this community is unwarranted. They are not racist.”
It was the first public statement on behalf of Tennis, 55, and Lozoya, 47, since they shot Joseph Mann on July 11 on Del Paso Boulevard.
Mann’s family has called for criminal charges against Tennis and Lozoya and asked the U.S. Department of Justice to open a civil rights investigation into the Sacramento Police Department. The family also has filed a civil suit against the city and officers.
John Burris, attorney for the Mann family, said race was not an issue in the case.
“I’ve never made any charges about them being racists,” Burris said. “I didn’t call (the officers) names. If I call them names, it’s ‘bad cops and killers.’ ”
Burris said the issue is whether the lethal force used by officers was justified, and whether the two officers acted inappropriately by failing to use de-escalation techniques.
“They made no effort to de-escalate before they fired a barrage of shots,” he said.
One of the officers said “f--- this guy” in the frantic final minute before Tennis and Lozoya shot Mann on Del Paso Boulevard, according to recordings released by police last month. Moments later, one of the officers said, “I’m going to hit him.”
“OK. Go for it. Go for it,” his partner responded.
The two officers’ vehicle accelerated toward Mann, missing him. The vehicle braked, at which point a tire squeal was heard. They backed up and continued to pursue Mann back on Del Paso Boulevard until he crossed the median. Tennis and Lozoya exited their car, pursued him on foot and shot him from a distance of about 27 feet as they approached.
Odbert disputed Burris’ characterization of the incident in her three-page memo. She said the officer said, “f--- this guy’ in reference to “not letting (Mann) enter businesses and harm civilians.”
She appeared to acknowledge that Lozoya and Tennis tried to hit Mann with their car, but suggested that it was an attempt to disable him, not kill him.
“Additionally, the use of a vehicle is allowed to stop a threat of death or great bodily injury,” she wrote. “The vehicle was traveling at a slow speed and was an opportunity to take the subject off his feet to prevent the need for any other force to be deployed. When confronted with a threat of great bodily harm or death, an officer may utilize any and all tools available to them.”
Sacramento police spokesman Bryce Heinlein said last week that a vehicle could be used as a lethal weapon by police, but that officers were not trained to use it as a nonlethal weapon to his knowledge.
Use-of-force expert and attorney Ed Obayashi said that he believed the officers’ tactics could be questioned because they left the safety of their car to pursue Mann and appeared to take lethal action almost immediately.
Odbert said immediate force was necessary to prevent injury to the officers or civilians.
“These officers had to make split-second decisions in a rapidly evolving scenario where the armed subject was heading towards a more heavily populated area,” she wrote.
Mann was on Del Paso Boulevard on a Monday morning when he was shot. Most businesses nearby, including a tattoo parlor and a bar, were closed. A light-rail train was stopped by officers across the street from where Mann was shot. Mann passed by at least one civilian during the encounter without engaging her, based on dashcam footage released by police.
Obayashi said that the officers who responded first showed a “textbook” response to a potential encounter with a mentally ill person.
“The primary officer knows what he wants to do, what he wants to accomplish,” Obayashi said. “He stops, he says, ‘I’m not going to force this.’ ”
Odbert argued that the initial responding officers kept their distance because they were afraid. “The first responding officer keeps his distance, which is reasonable due to the fear that he is in range of a gun,” she wrote. “He is so clearly in fear that he turns his windshield wipers on.”
Local activists have been calling for greater investigation in the Mann case and other police shootings in recent months.
“It’s a systemic issue and it comes from racism and bias in the Police Department,” said Tanya Faison of Black Lives Matter Sacramento. “ I can’t really speak to racism as far as the individuals, but our system is killing black men. It’s killing them and it’s validating it … it makes me afraid for myself and the people I love in my own city.”
Odbert defended the officers against concerns that race played a factor in their response.
“Officer Tennis has mixed-race children who are black,” she said. “Officer Lozoya has mixed-race children and family. They have chosen to work in the Del Paso Heights community to make a difference and improve the community.”
She said Tennis and Lozoya have more than 50 years of combined police experience and have received lifesaving awards and medals of valor.