'They're ready to kill us:' Stephon Clark protests heat up downtown
Nearly a week after two Sacramento police officers fatally shot an unarmed black man, prompting angry protests, one cop has seemingly escaped the ire of those in the streets -- the chief of police.
Sacramento's first African-American police chief, Daniel Hahn, has continued to be a source of hope -- or at least neutrality -- for activists and community members even as they rail at the rank and file over the death of Stephon Clark, shot at 20 times by two officers while holding a cell phone in his grandparents' backyard.
Protesters raged at police from noon to midnight Friday in marches downtown and in Meadowview, where the shooting occurred. They confronted individual officers, screaming obscenities inches from their faces, which were shielded by riot gear. At one point in the afternoon, several protesters singled out an African-American CHP officer, suggesting in a minutes-long tirade that he was a traitor to his people.
But many activists have more tempered words for Hahn.
"I think his intentions and his heart are in a good place," said Sonia Lewis, a member of Black Lives Matter and a relative of Stephon Clark. "The system is corrupt so one man being in a position that is seemingly a position of power cannot effectively bring change if the system doesn't want to change."
Berry Accius, a community activist who has pushed police reforms for years and helped organize the Meadowview march, added, "The bigger picture is really that Chief Hahn is not even really the source of our frustration. ... It’s the system. If anything, we are trying to help make his job easier because we know that it's bigger than Chief Hahn."
On Saturday, Hahn used some of that capital to advocate for peace.
"That’s what I’ve been doing all day today, working for people to call for calm," Hahn said Saturday evening. "People are tired. They are going to get weary, and sooner or later somebody is going to break and that is going to set it off. ... We are not too far away from even more violence, more unrest, more of what we see happen in other cities. All it's going to take is one little something."
Hahn was raised in the working class neighborhood of Oak Park, and served for years in the Sacramento Police Department before leaving to become chief of nearby Roseville. His hiring as Sacramento chief last summer was a much-lauded homecoming for not just a son of the city, but a son of the neighborhoods where police have lost trust after years of perceived neglect and bias.
After another black man, Joseph Mann, was shot by Sacramento police in the summer of 2016, the city faced upheaval similar to what the Clark shooting has brought.
City Council meetings were packed for weeks with people calling for police reform, and former police chief Sam Somers, Jr. retired at the end of the year. The city passed a major package of policing changes that included a video release policy as well as increased training for dealing with mentally ill people and increased training and access to non-lethal weapons. It also adopted a new use-of-force policy meant to curtail fatal encounters such as the shooting of Stephon Clark.
Hahn was hired to make sure those changes seeped into the department's culture. He was closely vetted by the city to ensure he had credibility in African-American communities to regain trust before a final decision was made to hire him, said those involved in the process.
Most critics of the department agree Hahn hasn't had enough time to make that happen, and that his cache of goodwill is largely undamaged by Clark's shooting.
Community activists interviewed by The Bee said Hahn must deliver accountability and answers quickly to maintain their support.
"If (the officers who shot Clark) violated something, they will receive discipline to the full extent of the law – we need to hear that it will be fair, that it will be unbiased," said Les Simmons, a pastor in south Sacramento who has been involved in police reform in Sacramento for years.
Hahn has already delivered on an unprecedented level of transparency. In the months since he took over, the department has released videos multiple times when it was not required to do so. After Clark was shot March 18, the department moved rapidly to make police videos of the incident public and did so in three days. It is the fastest the city has ever released such videos. In another milestone, the release included footage the department obtained from a Sacramento County Sheriff's Department helicopter.
It is the only time Sheriff Scott Jones has agreed to the release of video, albeit via another law enforcement agency.
Hahn will have a more difficult time delivering on accountability while also retaining the support of his rank-and-file officers.
He has already been a disruptor within a department that was just recovering its morale following the Mann shooting. The city recently signed a new contract with the police officers union giving significant raises, and officer retention has started to stabilize after an exodus from the force in recent years. Some officers who quit have even returned, said Tim Davis, head of the police officers' union.
"We brought him here because he can bridge the gap between the officers and community and we need that," said Davis. "This is is really difficult situation for him to handle but he's doing a good job. ... The department was on a good path and I think we still are."
Hahn said he doesn't know how officers feel about him right now, but he understands what they feel about the situation.
"Just think about every officer that is working on that line (at the protests) ... every officer who is sitting at home watching the news, watching the anger toward officers they don’t even know … then sitting in roll call tomorrow knowing they have to serve the community. So their nerves are high. They are wondering what could come on the next call or around the corner.
Right now it's stressful for everybody. And my obligation as chief is both to the community and to the officers. I have to ensure that I do everything I can to ... provide an atmosphere for our officers to work in that isn’t violent toward them."
Activists have widely condemned the two officers who shot Clark, saying they used excessive force against an unarmed man. But law enforcement experts interviewed by The Bee said the shooting looks legally reasonable from video.
Veteran Sacramento civil rights attorney Mark Reichel reviewed the videos for The Bee and said he cannot see evidence that would lead to criminal charges against the officers, though he did flag certain moments as troubling.
"From watching the video you can clearly see that officers thought he had a gun and they were in danger," said Davis, the union leader. "It's tragic the way this turned out, (but) the shoot is legally justified. No officer ever wants to take a life and it will affect the officers for the rest of their lives."
That position is deeply at odds with how many in the community view the shooting. Accius and others see it as the ultimate result of police they believe are biased against African Americans. They say police have unreasonable fear when encountering black people, especially men, and that leads officers to react with more aggression toward them than other races. "It's not a crime to be black," has becoming a rallying cry in protests, emblematic of how some community members say they feel under suspicion simply for the color of their skin in neighborhoods such as Meadowview.
"If you constantly fear for your life, you have the inability to be able to protect and serve your community," said Accius.
Hahn said that mistrust has caused the protests of the past few days to turn tense.
"Our city is in crisis right now," he said. "I'm going to assume we all know our relationship with the community isn’t where it could and should be. ... If they truly trusted the police department and truly trusted we were going to get the facts … they wouldn’t do all this."
The department will draw conclusions based on internal investigations to determine if the two officers violated laws. It will also examine if any of the responding officers violated department policies and procedures. If they did, the expectation is they will face consequences.
But by state law, officer discipline and personnel records are private. Hahn can't share publicly how or even if the officers are disciplined. The closest he will likely be able to come to sharing that crucial information is via the city's Office of Public Safety Accountability. That office will do an independent overview of the department's internal investigations and issue a public report.
In addition to the shooting, Hahn will likely have to answer for why officers turned their microphones off and huddled briefly after Clark was killed. While department policy allows for microphones and cameras to be turned off in certain circumstances -- such as to protect the privacy of a crime victim -- why the officers did so in this instance is unclear.
"That's when I need him to stand up and say, 'This is unacceptable behavior,'" said Lewis. "If we don't have anything to hide, we don't need to mute anything."
Hahn is aware that the end results of the Clark shooting need to be tangible.
"To me its two things," he said. "One is accountability to holding our staff, in this case these two officers, to what our current laws are are, current polices and current training. That's one totally separate issue. ... The other is accountability to continually get better. If in fact there is some sort of ruling at the end of the day that these two officers complied with the law, complied to policy for the most part, then we need to look at what can change to avoid these situations in the future. If we don’t, then it remains just a tragedy, … and you multiplied that tragedy by not getting better."
The challenges Hahn faces in maintaining credibility with both groups will likely mount. Stephon Clark's family has hired civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who also represented Michael Brown's family after he was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, MO. Crump has scheduled a press conference for Monday in Sacramento.
More protests are planned, and the Clark shooting likely will remain in the headlines for weeks if not longer.
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg says Hahn is the man for the situation.
"If there was anyone from the police, from the law enforcement side who can lead change while making it clear that he understands and we understand the challenges faced by the men and women who put on the uniform, it's Daniel Hahn," Steinberg said.
"He combines a canny knack for knowing the right thing (to do) with a lifetime of trust and relationships both at the city and within the community. I don’t know you’d find that with anyone else."
For Hahn, the moment is personal. He said he plans on finishing his career in Sacramento and has no ambitions to be chief of a larger city.
"The trust that I have with people in the community … what tangible difference will that have meant if at the end of this we don’t get better and reduce the chances of this happening again?
I'm not interested in window dressing. I'm not interested in strong talk and strong words … and then no real change happens. There is no magic pill or magic bullet, but I am interested in real change that makes us better. This is my last stop. It's got to mean something."
The Bee's Ryan Lillis and Sam Stanton contributed to this report.