A mentally ill African American man is killed after being shot at least 16 times by Sacramento police and those of us on the outside are left with unanswered questions as city leaders circle the wagons.
It’s a situation that raises understandable suspicion, despite the otherwise solid reputations of local law enforcement. How could it not? All that’s missing is a clear video of the incident provided by an independent third party and Sacramento might have some serious civil disturbances on its hands.
But if such a video exists, it hasn’t been made public yet. A bystander did record some rough footage of when Joseph Mann, 50, was shot and killed by Sacramento police near Del Paso Boulevard. The incident happened on July 11, but the footage – which can be viewed at sacbee.com – is taken from too far a distance to be conclusive.
According to police reports and witnesses, Mann was acting erratically and had a knife. Mann’s family has said that police should have de-escalated the situation instead of killing Mann.
The best footage capturing what happened on July 11 apparently is controlled by police, and they won’t let anyone – including Mann’s family – see it. Early last week, members of the City Council requested to view any footage related to Mann’s killing but then backed off the request.
City Attorney Jim Sanchez has compelled leaders to stay quiet until an investigation of the shooting has been completed. Sanchez is undoubtedly concerned about civil litigation. Sanchez has shown in the past, while protecting Mayor Kevin Johnson and Councilman Allen Warren from sexual harassment allegations, that keeping his clients away from litigation is his highest priority. It doesn’t seem to matter if mitigating that exposure creates the whiff of a cover-up.
And then there’s the sad sight of nine council members – including four African Americans – remaining publicly silent amid questions about why a mentally ill man was shot to death instead of being subdued and given medical assistance.
The investigation into the Mann killing – or rather, the investigations – are being conducted by Sacramento homicide detectives and other law enforcement agencies. Sanchez confirmed that a criminal investigation by homicide detectives was concluded Tuesday. A report of that investigation has been sent to the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office, which also is investigating. In addition, a civil investigation, which includes an internal affairs case within the Sacramento Police Department, remains open.
How long will it take it take before those investigations are done? We don’t know. No one will say. All civilians, even the politically powerful, are on the outside looking in until law enforcement leaders share the results of the investigations they’ve conducted of their colleagues.
If recent deadly force shootings by police offer any guidance – think Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. for example – the officers in the Mann shooting will be found to have operated within the law. It would be surprising in the extreme if the Sacramento County district attorney found otherwise.
This isn’t the 1950s or ’60s. You can’t just cover things up.
Sacramento Police Chief Sam Somers
After Anne Marie Schubert became the DA, her office restored a program that had been eliminated several years before due to budget cuts: An investigation and review of police use-of-force incidents. The DA’s Office posts its findings of these incidents on its website (www.sacda.org/police-use-force/). It completed reviews of five police-involved shootings in 2014 and seven in 2015. (There were two more incident reviews, one from 2014 and one from 2015, that still have not been posted on the website). The reviews of police shootings by Schubert’s office were completed anywhere between nine and 17 months after the shootings occurred.
Four of the shooting incidents reviewed by Schubert’s office involved Sacramento police, three involved the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, two involved Citrus Heights police, one involved Folsom police, one involved the California Highway Patrol and one jointly involved the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and sheriff’s deputies.
In each case, the shootings were found to be lawful and justified. Schubert’s office doesn’t investigate police tactics or procedures or whether there is civil liability in these incidents. Her office only investigates if there is “sufficient evidence to support the finding of criminal action” in the shootings.
Why didn’t any of the incidents reviewed by Schubert’s office – or any others of recent memory – result in a peace officer being charged with criminal action? One reason is that law enforcement officers are given wide latitude by case law to use deadly force if they fear for their safety or the safety of others.
However, officers have used that latitude to cover up bad behavior. Earlier this year, a South Carolina grand jury indicted Michael Slager, a North Charleston police officer, who shot and killed a 50-year-old man named Walter Scott. Scott, a forklift operator, ran from Slager during a routine traffic stop on April 4, 2015.
Slager told his superiors he followed police procedures. But video provided by a bystander showed Slager firing eight times and hitting Scott, who was unarmed and running away, five times. The video dismantled Slager’s claims and became a national story. In addition to the murder charge, Slager also was indicted on federal charges including violation of Scott’s civil rights and obstruction of justice. The city of North Charleston has agreed to pay the Scott family $6.5 million as part of an out-of-court settlement.
What would have happened without the video? Would Slager still be on the job today? Would his claims of following procedures been upheld by other law enforcement agencies? These questions hang over the Mann investigation as they do all police-involved shootings.
I’ve known Sam Somers Jr., Sacramento’s police chief, for years and have always believed him to be a committed public servant. Somers can’t discuss the Mann case, but he does defend his department. “This isn’t the 1950s or ’60s,” Somers said. “You can’t just cover things up.”
Somers points to notable cases of police officers who were held accountable when it was discovered they were involved in criminal activity. In November 2015, for example, Gary Dale Baker – a longtime Sacramento police officer – was sentenced to life in prison for repeatedly raping a disabled woman in her 70s. Schubert’s office aggressively prosecuted Baker and has gone after other cops for breaking the law.
But the issue at the heart of the Mann shooting is different and is bigger than any one individual. It’s about the power that cops have and how closed investigations of use of deadly force can – fairly or unfairly – create the perception that cops take care of their own.
The question is: Can law enforcement really police itself?
I don’t know. With the Mann case, I’m shut out of the process. You’re shut out of the process. We have to take it on faith that the officers involved are not lying as Slager did. We have to take it on faith that officers from the same department can be dispassionate when investigating colleagues who shot and killed Mann. Law enforcement is a brotherhood and a sisterhood. Can those bonds truly be set aside when one cop investigates another? It’s a reasonable question to ask.
Is it true that Sacramento police, like all police officers, face grave dangers on our streets? Yes. Is it true that for every shooting, there are countless incidents defused peacefully by Sacramento police? Yes. I’ve seen them do it. But the Mann incident did not end peacefully, and we are left wondering why he had to die.
In August, a subgroup of the Sacramento Community Police Commission suggested a plan that would require Sacramento police to make available all dashboard and body-camera footage from officer-involved shootings and in-custody deaths. It would be uploaded to a website and released on a specific schedule. The Police Department’s current policy is never to release that footage. Clearly, this must change.
We might not learn of Schubert’s review of the Mann investigation until next year. We might not ever be satisfied with the legal outcome. Is that an indictment of local law enforcement? No. It’s what happens when a process isn’t transparent. Justice should be blind – not our faith in in our Police Department.