On April 26, two Sacramento Regional Transit officers intercepted a train at 29th Street and wrestled two black teenagers to the ground. As they pinned the boys to the pavement, a bystander took photos with his phone.
In the months afterward, local activists held up those images as examples of everything that they say is wrong with Sacramento law enforcement: excessive use of force, different treatment of black people.
But this week, two investigations found that a Sacramento police officer did nothing wrong. The investigations found no racial profiling, no excessive force, no brutality, no breach in policy, no violation of the law.
The photos, taken by local activist Independence Taylor, have been shared thousands of times on Facebook, held up repeatedly at Sacramento City Council meetings and discussed in local media.
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In the images, two black teens are held down by two white officers patrolling Regional Transit, one a Sacramento Police Department officer, the other a Sacramento County sheriff’s deputy. Activists said the officers appeared to be using chokeholds, or carotid holds, on the boys and called it brutality.
But an internal investigation done by the Sacramento Police Department that examined the officer’s use of force found no such hold was used, according to an independent audit.
Francine Tournour, director of the city of Sacramento’s Office of Public Safety and Accountability, reviewed the investigation and agreed with its findings.
“The officer’s actions were within policy,” Tournour said. “There was no use of a chokehold or a carotid hold to subdue the juvenile. He was taken to the ground and, basically, the officer kind of had him in a held position with his arm around his shoulder and neck but there was no pressure, and he was not injured.”
Tournour is employed by the city to independently review allegations of police misconduct. Of the cases she’s had this year, this was among the most publicized.
“The police are looking at it from the perspective of safety and policy,” she said of the internal review, which is not publicly available. “When my office gets involved, I like to think about what we can do in the future, what can we do to make interactions with police better for the whole community?”
Officers can improve their response to such incidents in the future with more communication and better training, she said. Specifically, training that teaches officers how best to communicate with teenagers and what best practices are when bystanders are filming or taking pictures of police interactions.
“I think officers are pretty understanding that there’s always room for improvement,” said Sacramento police Lt. Norm Leong. “When juveniles are involved, sometimes (young people) haven’t learned to control their anger or emotional reaction and situations can flare up pretty quick. … We don’t know if additional communication would have helped, but it certainly wouldn’t have hurt.”
Local activist Delphine Brody, who has been outspoken about the light-rail incident and helped promote the photos on social media, said Tournour’s recommendation doesn’t go far enough. She said increased racial sensitivity training for Sacramento law enforcement and a discussion of institutional racism would go a long way.
“Obviously people do need to develop a better sensitivity to youths and how to deal with young people,” Brody said. “But the way these two were treated was not how they would have been treated if they were white. I think it’s a pretty clear-cut case of racial profiling.”
On the day of the incident, a witness called police to report a “large black man in a red shirt chasing a woman with a pipe” at a light-rail station. What the witness actually saw were two black teenage boys play-fighting with sticks.
That, Tournour said, is what separates this incident from others around the country where police independently stopped or approached black civilians under suspicion of wrongdoing.
“The officers were responding to a description that was given; they didn’t single them out for no reason,” she said.
After intercepting the light-rail train, the officers approached the larger of the two boys, and asked him to accompany them to a parked police cruiser. When the boy began to stall, officers grabbed his arm in an effort to move him along, Leong said, but he “began resisting and pushed the deputy.” That’s when they took him down.
The smaller boy began to move toward his friend when he saw what happened, Leong said. Seconds later, the police officer pulled him to the ground. He was let go without a citation.
The older one was cited for resisting arrest and released.
The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, whose deputy was part of the two-officer team, did not conduct an internal investigation, said spokesman Sgt. Lisa Bowman, who directed all questions to the Sacramento Police Department.
Tournour said because she believes the more information made available to the public, the more people are likely to trust in law enforcement and the accountability system meant to keep officer misconduct in check, her office will soon publish its audit reports online.