Cities only get so many chances to prove to the public that they’re serious about having a police department that’s transparent and accountable. So it was wise of Mayor Darrell Steinberg and the City Council not to squander Sacramento’s latest chance on Tuesday night.
Faced with a request from interim police Chief Brian Louie to delay the release of several videos from a February shootout between officers and a wanted parolee, the mayor and council unanimously rejected it. They did so pointedly, too, leveling a rapid-fire string of angry questions at Louie, who looked embarrassed as he shifted uncomfortably, standing at a microphone in the council chambers.
Behind the interim chief, who one day hopes to be the permanent chief, livid residents looked on, waiting patiently for their turn to speak even though the time was quickly approaching midnight. Their reaction, although clearly not what Louie expected, is completely understandable.
After all, it was only in November that the City Council enacted a policy that requires the Sacramento Police Department to release dash-cam and body-cam footage from all officer-involved shootings and other “critical incidents” within 30 days. And that only happened after police tried – and failed miserably – to keep secret the horrific footage of officers chasing, trying to run over and finally shooting Joseph Mann on a Del Paso Heights sidewalk last summer.
The case under discussion Tuesday night involved Armani Sicilian Lee, a 28-year-old who shot at a K-9 patrol cruiser in Del Paso Heights. Two officers and a sheriff’s deputy returned fire, hitting him multiple times.
The shootout happened on Feb. 10. That means the department is already almost two weeks behind schedule in releasing what Louie says are 23 videos, all taken from different angles.
Still he hoped the council would grant the department a waiver to delay releasing the footage. And at first, it appeared the gamble might work.
On Monday, Steinberg was inclined to give police and the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office another 60 days. “What the DA’s office is saying is that they need more time in a complicated situation,” he told The Bee’s Anita Chabria. “As long as we are complying with the clear intent of the policy … I think we can also work with our DA and make this work for everyone.”
By Tuesday, though, it became abundantly clear that a waiver wasn’t in the cards. Part of the problem is Louie couldn’t really explain why the Police Department should get one.
He argued that the investigation of Lee was ongoing and that detectives were still building their case for prosecutors. But he couldn’t offer any details about the case itself or specifics about why the department feared the videos would “hamper, impede or taint” the investigation if released to the public.
What’s more, Louie confessed the main reason for his unease was that he didn’t realize the department faced a 30-day deadline under the new policy, and so officers had only started to review the footage and blur out the faces of bystanders to protect their privacy.
“I claim responsibility,” Louie said. As should anyone who wants to be the next chief.
Councilman Larry Carr, one of the video policy’s main authors, wasn’t having it. Nor was Councilman Allen Warren, who correctly surmised: “If we can’t release video in this case, I don’t know when we would be able to release video.”
The City Council made the only decision it could by forcing the Police Department to release videos from the Lee case as soon as possible. Any other decision would set the entirely wrong precedent for a department still trying to regain the public’s trust.