This is a test for the Sacramento Police Department.
For months, Chief Daniel Hahn has promised more transparency from his embattled institution, vowing that shooting suspects first and asking questions later will be a thing of the past. This is a new day, with new management, Hahn has said, and, so, the community has waited patiently for answers about the questionable death of Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man who was chased into his own backyard by two officers and a helicopter on Sunday night, and killed in a hail of bullets.
Now we have footage from the officers' body cameras, released, to Hahn's credit, ahead of schedule on Wednesday. Now the question is: Is this a test the police will be able to pass?
This footage does not look good for the department.
At first, the story was that Clark was using a “tool bar” — whatever that is — to try to break into a house in the 7500 block of 29th Street. Sacramento County sheriff’s deputies, responding in a helicopter to a 911 call about someone breaking into cars, said they saw the young man use this mysterious object to before dashing into an adjacent yard.
As it turns out, that yard belonged to Clark’s grandparents and the 22-year-old father of two toddlers was only holding an iPhone. The “tool bar,” like the equally mysterious gun that officers thought he was holding when they shot him, was nowhere to be found.
From the bodycam footage, we now know that it took only seconds for the officers to start firing on Clark when they encountered him in the dark. Neither identified himself as a police officer. One yelled "show me your hands" and both screamed "gun” in the same breath before letting off a barrage of shots.
Even under the light from the helicopter, it's tough to see whether Clark was advancing toward officers as they later reported. More troubling is that, as additional officers arrived about six minutes later, one cop can be heard saying, "Hey, mute." Then the audio cuts out as the officers all turn off their microphones, but the video shows them continuing to talk to each other and at least one civilian.
“We asked, ‘Can they do that,’” Les Simmons, a social justice activist who viewed the footage with two of Clark’s family members, told The Bee. “… It was a moment of, what are they doing? What are they saying?”
Our questions exactly. It's an understatement to say that this will not build community trust.
These are some of the same questions that arose after the death of Joseph Mann, another black man who died in a hail of bullets after being chased by police and sheriff’s deputies. In that case, audio suspiciously buried in police dashcam footage revealed two of the officers on the scene that day in Del Paso Heights tried to run over Mann with their squad car.
The fallout led to a series of reforms, including the new policy about releasing police videos within 30 days, and the hiring of Hahn on the premise that he would help build more trust between the department and communities of color through transparency and collaborative policing.
On the former promise, Hahn has delivered. On several occasions, he has released police footage even though the department was not required to do so. In some cases, as in the Clark shooting, he released it weeks early.
But this is the first publicized instance on Hahn's watch in which the pictures and the officers' words don't tell the same story. And given the tragic outcome, there are critical questions. Was lethal force really required against a suspected car burglar? Could non-lethal force have been used? Could the officers have defused the situation?
Was Clark really advancing on police when he was shot? And did the officers even have the right man? The video released by the sheriff's department starts as Clark is hopping a fence, not as he is breaking car windows. Did the officers mistake Clark for someone else in the dark of night?
And Mayor Darrell Steinberg, while supporting Hahn, had another question: What are the protocols in officer-involved shootings for rendering emergency aid?
Hahn and the department must answer, if only to quell rumors swirling in the community and fueling national headlines. We hope the many investigations into this case will clear the air.
“The people of District 8 are highly upset,” Councilman Larry Carr told Hahn at Tuesday night’s City Council meeting.
That’s was as much a statement of fact as it was a warning. Hahn can't afford to fail.