When Stephon Clark protesters shout 'F--- the police' in their faces, what's a cop to do?

Here was the scene Friday afternoon on L and 15th streets in Sacramento: a line of cops, most of them bicycle patrol members wearing bike helmets, slowly backing away as a wall of protesters converged on them.

“F--- the police,” the crowd chants. “F--- the police.” What’s an officer to do?

“I’ve told my guys in the past to back off, don’t say a word, don’t get involved in a verbal disagreement, just back off,” said Yolo County Sheriff Ed Prieto, whose 50 years of experience in law enforcement included working the streets of south-central Los Angeles during the Rodney King riots.

“I think the whole idea is, you have to stay calm. It’s hard, sometimes it’s really difficult.”

As Sacramento has been wracked with protests that have shut down Interstate 5, kept thousands of people from attending Kings games on two different nights and disrupted a City Council meeting, police agencies dealing with the fallout of the March 18 shooting death of an unarmed African American man, Stephon Clark, are treading a fine line.

With passions inflamed in protests that, so far, have resulted in only two arrests, authorities say they are trying to maintain public safety without making the situation worse as protesters literally go nose to nose with officers.

“It’s really critical during those times to maintain our professionalism,” said Sacramento police Sgt. Vance Chandler, a department spokesman and 12-year veteran of the SWAT team who has seen a number of protests.

“We are a police department that makes professionalism a top priority, and we also know that when people are upset and tensions are high people want a reaction from us.

“And we realize that it’s important to keep our composure, because a reaction from us in a negative way will not be favorable for our police department and our community … We don’t want to incite a hostile crowd further.”

To date, the shooting of Clark, a suspected car burglar who was killed after two officers fired 20 shots at him in a dark south Sacramento backyard, has spawned widespread outrage nationally, especially since the release of video from the officers’ body cameras and a helicopter overhead.

But the city has escaped the widespread unrest of a Ferguson, Mo., where armored vehicles prowled the streets after the 2014 shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

Sacramento may be benefiting from the fact that police departments constantly study such incidents and train officers regularly on how to respond to protests without making them worse.

“As we’ve gone through the years, we’ve learned from each major incident,” Chandler said, adding that technology such as body cameras, video surveillance and ShotSpotter devices that track gunshots have helped officers respond to incidents quickly.

But technology also has made police officers’ jobs more difficult, some say, particularly with the spread of information – or misinformation – on social media and news organizations forced to provide coverage of incidents almost instantaneously in the digital age.

“I hate to say it, but one of the biggest problems we’re facing today is the news media,” Prieto said. “The media plays up the thought that this young man was shot and killed, but I don’t know why he was shot and killed.

“Nobody does. I don’t know if it’s a good shooting or a bad shooting, but the way the news puts it out continuously is like he’s just a nice little kid walking down the street.”

The sheriff compared the Stephon Clark protests to the aftermath of the 2009 shooting of Luis Gutierrez by deputies on a Woodland overpass.

“When we were involved in Gutierrez, man, they were after us,” Prieto said. “It was, ‘It’s a racist shooting, he didn’t have a weapon, we put that knife in his hand.’

“And what’s our response? ‘Sorry man, I can’t make a comment.’ We had about 250 people marching with a picture of me that said, ‘Kill Prieto.’ ”

Technology has changed since the Gutierrez case, especially with the Sacramento Police Department’s decision to release body camera video in officer-involved shootings.

But the basic training that officers go through has not changed in some regards.

“This is how you’re trained: if you really suspect this person had a gun, then they open fire,” Prieto said. “You shoot until you drop the individual. Stop the threat, not to kill but to stop the threat.”

The controversy over the fact that officers fired 20 shots at Stephon Clark is misplaced, he said.

“They may have fired 20 times and only hit him twice,” he said. “My sergeant (in Gutierrez) fired four times and hit the sidewalk twice and a garage twice.”

Now, with cellphone cameras omnipresent, Prieto says some officers “are probably running a little bit more intimidated. "

"They’re not sure what to do, how to do it, are they going to be criticized?” he said. “It’s just a different time for law enforcement.”

Prieto and Chandler both note that many critics police are facing over the Stephon Clark case have never had to make the decision on whether to fire at a suspect.

“I was involved in numerous officer-involved shootings and they’re very intense situations,” Chandler said. “Each one is unique. You don’t have time to think or react to information …

“Decisions are made on whether protecting yourself or another officer or someone in our community can happen within seconds.”

In the Clark case, the body camera video indicated officers believed he had a gun, although police have since said he was found only to have a cellphone.

But the recordings of the officers reflect their own emotions immediately after they have fired.

“The pitch in their voice and hearing their voices and all of those feelings, it shows how intense these situations are,” he said. “That’s fear.

“They thought they were about to be shot. They thought that subject was was pointing a gun at them.”

City and police officials say they are working to ensure that disruptions of Kings games and City Council meetings don’t re-occur, and there still is a chance that tensions could boil over, especially with more protests planned.

But sometimes whether an officer-involved shooting creates widespread protest depends on the timing, location and facts of the case.

A similar shooting in Vallejo on Feb. 13 – of Ronell Foster, an unarmed African American man who was allegedly shot in the back and back of his head while he ran from an officer – spawned a federal excessive force lawsuit filed Tuesday but no major protests.

The difference? Vallejo has yet to release the body camera footage, the lawsuit says.

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