Local

Police were called to handle an escalating mental-health crisis. This is why they backed off

Stevante Clark speaks to the Sacramento City Council on April 10.
Stevante Clark speaks to the Sacramento City Council on April 10. pkitatagaki@sacbee.com

Stevante Clark was slipping out of control, and the police cruiser parked on his front lawn wasn't improving his mental state.

It was the evening of April 16, almost a month since the fatal shooting of Clark's younger brother. Stephon Clark, 22, had been killed outside of his grandmother's house by two Sacramento Police Department officers on March 18 after they apparently mistook his cellphone for a gun and fired 20 rounds at him.

Stephon Clark's death became an international story, and Stevante Clark, 25, was at the center of it — a grieving, flamboyant, increasingly erratic figure featured in a whirlwind of protests, press interviews and unpredictable encounters with the public.

To those interacting with him, he often seemed to straddle the line between righteous anger and aggressive incoherence. His volatile words and actions made them wonder if he had a mental illness, according to more than a dozen people interviewed by The Sacramento Bee.

The officer at Clark's Del Paso Heights home on that April evening was conducting a welfare check on him after emergency dispatchers received multiple "unintelligible" 911 calls from Clark in which he was "saying random things," said Sacramento police Lt. Roman Murrietta.

Clark "was yelling at a police officer who had his cruiser up on the lawn and was behind his (car) door trying to get Stevante to come out," said Samantha Urke, Clark's roommate, who witnessed the exchange. "(Stevante) was yelling things like, 'F---ing pig ... come and get me.'"

But police didn't arrest Clark that night or detain him for a mental-health hold.

Instead, what happened over the next three days was an unprecedented experiment in how law enforcement and communities could collaborate to handle calls involving mental illness — especially in diverse neighborhoods where police intervention in such high-stress situations has led to violence, mistrust and animosity.

In 2016, police fatally shot Joseph Mann, a black man with mental illness, only a few miles away from Clark's house. Before Mann, police shot Dazion Flenaugh across town, another black man troubled by drugs and mental illness. Since then, some community members have pushed to find alternatives to law enforcement when it comes to confronting mentally ill people.

"For black people, you don't call the police first for mental illness," said Betty Williams, president of the Sacramento NAACP.

Police also are frustrated by mental-health related incidents and their front-line role dealing with them. Last year, Sacramento police requested 1,679 involuntary holds for psychiatric evaluations — averaging nearly five a day — and fielded 3,348 incidents related to mental health, according to data provided by the department. Police Capt. Pamela Seyffert, who heads the north command where Clark was living, describes Sacramento's treatment of mental illness as a "revolving door" that leaves officers discouraged.

"People agree that they don't want police coming into certain situations, and we get that, but if we are the only ones that can do it ... then we have to do it," she said. "There is no place where we can take them and they are actually going to get long-term help."

Williams said Stevante Clark has sparked a discussion about mental illness in communities of color, no less important than the issue of race in American policing raised by Stephon Clark's shooting.

"The civil rights piece of the killing of Stephon Clark, that hasn't gone away," Williams said. "But this additional conversation has just sprung out."

Under intense scrutiny and in the wake of recurring protests throughout the city, Seyffert said police didn't want to risk a violent encounter with Stevante Clark on that April night. So they did something that had rarely if ever been done in Sacramento before — sent civilians to handle what normally would have been a quick arrest.

The results have raised questions about the hard choices police and the city face when it comes to handling mental crises, and what responsibilities and risks are reasonable to ask of residents.

Worrisome behavior

Sacramento police had been struggling to deal with Clark for weeks, trying to determine if his behavior was grief, grandstanding, mental illness or a mix that couldn't be teased apart.

At a Sacramento City Council meeting on March 27, Clark jumped onto the dais and later told Mayor Darrell Steinberg to, "Shut the f---," up. A few days later during a CNN interview, he rang a bell rather than speaking when he didn't want to answer a question from host Don Lemon, leaving Lemon visibly confused.

JV_032718_CITY_COUNCIL 200.JPG
Stevante Clark, brother of Stephon Clark, stormed the Sacramento City Council chambers, briefly forcing the council to leave the chambers on Tuesday afternoon, March 27, 2018. Jose Luis Villegas The Sacramento Bee

He accosted a father with his young son in a Davis store, yelling profanities. He disrupted a church service. He demanded diplomatic immunity and a 24-hour auto detail facility from city officials.

On April 1, Clark had been admitted to the University of California, Davis, on a mental health hold after calling 911 multiple times from a north Sacramento hotel. He said he was fearful that someone was trying to break in his room. Management there also had called the police for help after Clark became argumentative.

"We (were) all watching from afar, going 'Wow, this is going to end bad,'" Seyffert said.

Clark said in a Facebook post in May that he recently was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and has spoken repeatedly about the emotional toll of his brother's shooting.

"I was a human before this," he told reporters after Stephon Clark's funeral. "I don't eat. I don't sleep. Imagine being famous over the death of your relative. They don't see you. They see your brother. They see a death."

Family, friends, pastors and even the mayor's office tried to intervene.

"I have had hundreds of calls saying, 'Sis, how can we help this kid?,'" said Sonia Lewis, a Black Lives Matter member and a relative of Clark's. "That's the shame of it because the community wants to help him."

Lewis arranged for Clark to sit down with five local men who had lost loved ones in officer-involved incidents. The group included the brothers of Mann and Flenaugh. It helped, but not for long, she said.

"He has a lot of good moments where he's clear-headed, and there are a lot of times when he's not," said Clark's cousin, Darron Powe.

Powe described Clark's emotional state as trying to hold water in a plastic bag. "That water is going to eventually start leaking out," he said.

Domestic problems

Urke, Clark's roommate, was largely unaware of Clark's recent struggles when she heard him yelling at the officer on April 16. She told him to shut up.

"You are not on the lease," Urke said she told Clark through his closed bedroom door. "You need to just be quiet."

Clark responded with profanities and insults, behavior that was out of character for a guy she thought of as "respectful and very cordial" before his brother's death, she said.

The next morning, she said Clark threatened her life.

"He comes and start talking to my husband about, 'If he can’t control his wife, he’ll kill me, rape me' … crazy stuff," she said. "It was all just very shocking."

This time, she was the one who called 911. It was not a call the police wanted.

Samantha and Alex Urke were once roommates with Stevante Clark. Then he threatened to kill Samantha and trashed their house, they say.

"For obvious reasons, none of this is good for us," Seyffert said. "We shot his brother. We don't need this in any way, shape or form. ... We don't want to hurt this kid. He's gone through a lot and the last thing he needs is us charging in his house and something going wrong."

Urke said multiple officers arrived and again tried to talk to Clark through his bedroom window, but couldn't convince him to leave the house. Even a hostage negotiator failed.

That afternoon, with Clark still refusing to come out and police reluctant to go in, police asked Urke and her husband to go to a hotel.

Then police contacted Larry Craig-Arriba, a local community activist, and Powe, and asked for them to intervene.

"The plan was really to give the community a chance to try to help with this," Seyffert said. "And people really stepped up to the plate."

Community response

Armed with Popeye's Chicken, Craig-Arriba and Powe tried to talk to Clark, Craig-Arriba said.

Clark told them to leave the food on the porch. The men did, and waited down the street in their car. Most of that day passed without incident, Craig-Arriba said.

"We sat on him, made sure he didn't mess with (anyone), no one messed with him," Craig-Arriba said.

Clark remained mostly inside the house, posting live videos to Facebook that showed him trashing the interior, Urke said.

Urke said she became obsessed with the internet feeds as Clark went after her possessions, throwing them on the lawn for passersby to take and using a hatchet they kept by the fireplace for kindling to smash the wall heater, a marble counter top and the doors of the home.

"I'm watching him destroy my sh-t ... all of my books, all of my clothes, all of my art supplies, my dog's ashes," Urke said. "It was just frustrating. ... Finally my husband is like, 'You have to stop. ... Just stop watching his videos.'"

The next day, April 18, the situation deteriorated. Clark donned a bullet proof vest and posted videos of himself carrying a Marine dress sword that belonged to Urke's grandfather. He also had what two people described as a toy gun that looked like an automatic weapon.

He left the house and began terrorizing the neighbors, said Jessica DeSouza, whose father lives across the street. DeSouza said that at around 4 p.m. Clark came across the street and jumped on top of her father's truck. She was out front watching two of her daughters, ages 2 and 7, play basketball when, "all the sudden, (Clark) started screaming and yelling," DeSouza said.

"I didn't know what to think," she said. "I thought he was a regular tweaker from inside the Heights. ... I thought maybe he was drunk. I didn't know who this guy was."

She picked up two baseball bats and called called 911 multiple times. But police were still trying to keep their distance — though Seyffert said the department had officers nearby monitoring Clark.

Instead, Craig-Arriba and Powe returned, looking to defuse the situation.

"We were trying to protect him and the neighborhood at the same time," Craig-Arriba said. "I was hoping that he would change the way he was back to when I first met him. I was thinking what he was going through was a temporary thing that he would solve himself."

But in an hours-long drama, Clark grabbed a hammer and threw it at DeSouza, she said. Craig-Arriba pushed Clark onto the hood of a car and "held him down for a little bit," he said.

In an interview earlier this week, Clark said he didn't know Craig-Arriba was trying to help him, and instead thought Craig-Arriba might be trying to kill him. Police said Clark called 911 to report Craig-Arriba multiple times.

"I felt bad for Larry," Seyffert said. "He, bless his heart, tried and tried and tried."

Hopes were fading for a resolution other than handcuffs.

"As time went on, things were getting more and more violent," Seyffert said. "I am at home watching his Facebook feed and just sweating bullets because I'm like ... eventually my cops are going to get something that we can't just sit back on and you know, we are going to have to respond."

Eventually, Clark went into his house, DeSouza said. Craig-Arriba said sat in his car out front until 3:30 a.m. before going home.

The next morning, police again began receiving calls about Clark from people reporting he had barricaded the street with trash cans and furniture and was attempting to hit passing cars with a shovel.

Seyffert said police already had decided they couldn't let the situation go any longer.

"At that point, it's like, 'Just go,'" she said.

Mixed results

Clark was arrested on the street that morning without incident and booked into county jail on felony charges that were later reduced to four misdemeanors. He was released a few days later without bail. He is due back in court on June 6 and has the option of applying for mental health court.

By the time Clark was locked up, police had fielded more than 50 calls about the situation — including three dozen Urke said she made — and spent three days monitoring it with patrol cars, undercover cops and surveillance, Seyffert said.

Powe said "the police department did do all they can to not arrest him."

Seyffert said it was unlikely the department would try the approach again without another extraordinary case.

"It was an interesting ... event for us," Seyffert said. "Allowing citizens to really be in harm's way is something we don't do. We don't like to do it. And I still think, well, what would have happened if Larry (Craig-Arriba) got injured out there?"

Craig-Arriba said he would do it again. "I think by working with law enforcement, we can solve a lot of problems before they start," he said. "We should do more of that."

Urke and Desouza said they understand Clark presented a challenge to police, but they question if officers protected them adequately and if it was fair put them in potential danger with no explanation.

"Now it makes sense, who he is, and why (police) didn't show up," Desouza said. "But at the same time, one of us could have got hurt."

Desouza said her kids are afraid to go to her father's house. "Even my 7-year-old is like, 'What are the cops for? They didn't even help us,'" she said.

Urke, who works at a veterinary office, said Clark caused $3,300 worth of damage to the house, which her landlord is making her pay. She has started a Go Fund Me page to raise money for her lost possessions. She said police gave her $2,500 in cash in exchange for signing a waiver not to bring legal action against the city. Police could not immediately confirm what was in the waiver.

29263698_1524155762.2758.jpg
Samantha Urke said her roommate, Stevante Clark, put her furniture and other belongings on the front yard during a standoff with police, and barricaded the street with trash cans. Courtesy Urke family

Urke said she feels violated and angered by the loss of personal items like her graduation photos. She was scared for the safety of her three dogs and three cats, left behind with her quick departure to the hotel, and is still emotional about the turmoil the incident caused in her life.

She thinks police should have acted sooner.

"He is mentally ill, he's grieving. I get it," Urke said. "I am totally sympathetic to what he is going through but at the same time, you are manifesting that on me, and I have to respect myself."

Seyffert and others said the underlying problem remains that there are not enough facilities or services to help people with mental illness — forcing communities to rely on police and police to rely on jails or temporary 72-hour holds often handled in overburdened emergency rooms.

"There are a lot of Stevantes out there," Craig-Arriba said. "If you ride down Del Paso Boulevard right now, he's not the only one. And we don't know how to deal with them."

In early May, Clark was again detained, this time in a Starbucks in the Medical Center area, and placed on a mental health hold that led to a 10-day stay at a psychiatric facility, Clark said in a Facebook post.

Since his release, he has been active in campaigning for Libertarian party candidates in the upcoming election.

But in an interview Wednesday, Clark expressed displeasure and dispair.

"What I learned out of this whole month … everyone in this world has either two things, either a price or an agenda," Clark said. "I have been treated like s--- by everybody. .... They could have done everything differently. They should have killed me when they had the chance."

Stevante Clark, brother of Stephon Clark, spoke to the Bee in the Sacramento County Jail after he was arrested yesterday after a week of escalating conflicts with his roommates following his brother's death at the hands of Sacramento Police officers.

Stevante Clark enters the church for the funeral of his brother Stephon Clark, the 22-year-old Sacramento man whose shooting death by police 11 days ago sparked protests and a call for police reform.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee

  Comments