Sacramento police officers won’t be charged in shooting of Stephon Clark, DA says

One year after Sacramento police shot Stephon Clark to death and sparked a renewed national dialogue over police shootings of young black men, Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert declared Saturday that the officers feared for their lives and “acted lawfully under the circumstances.” She declared the shooting justified and said her office was not pressing criminal charges.

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In a statement that lasted more than an hour, Schubert said the officers who shot Clark believed he was armed with a gun when they confronted him in a Meadowview backyard March 18, 2018. The pair had received a call of someone breaking car windows. They confronted Clark, who was 22, and chased him into a backyard. Video showed Clark advancing toward the officers. One officer said he believed he saw a muzzle flash at them.

“Clearly we all know he didn’t have a gun,”Schubert said. “But the officers didn’t know that.”

Investigators later found the officers had mistaken a white and pink iPhone in his hands for a gun, a determination that led to angry protests nationwide and dozens of proposed reforms in how the Sacramento Police Department trains its officers on the use of deadly force.

The district attorney detailed her findings in a 61-page report released on Saturday morning. That review, based on video recordings, autopsy reports and witness interviews, found that the officers’ actions were legal based on the situation they that believed they were in.

“The evidence in this case demonstrates that both officers had an honest and reasonable belief that they were in imminent danger of death or great bodily injury,” Schubert wrote in a seven-page summary that accompanied the report. “Therefore, the shooting of Mr. Clark was lawful and no criminal charges will be filed.”

She reiterated that statement at a news conference in her office Saturday at noon. “Was a crime committed?” Schubert asked. “There is no question that a human being died. But when we look at the facts and the law, the answer to that question is no.”

The report, the 34th consecutive officer-involved shooting review that Schubert’s office has issued with a finding that officers acted legally, also offered sympathetic words over Clark’s death, a nod to the angry protests and conciliatory remarks about the shooting by Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg.

“Stephon Clark’s death was a tragedy that has had a devastating impact on his family and our community,” Schubert wrote in the report summary. “A young man lost his life and many lives have been irreversibly changed. No decision or report will restore Stephon Clark’s life.”

Schubert, who has become the focus of Black Lives Matters protesters and others who wanted Officers Terrence Mercadel and Jared Robinet charged with murder, was met with members of the Clark family before releasing her report Saturday.

Schubert noted in the summary accompanying her findings that the lack of criminal charges “in no way diminishes the frustrations and anger that many in our community have expressed since his death.”

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A separate report is expected to be issued in coming days by state Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who has been conducting his own investigation. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Sacramento plans to review both investigations in its own review of the shooting.

The district attorney’s report, the lengthiest she has released in an officer-involved shooting, offers the most detailed look to date at the events leading up to the shooting.

46 hours of chaos

The report describes a 46-hour series of events before the shooting during which Clark allegedly attacked his girlfriend, researched internet sites for ways to commit suicide and begged her not to help police send him back to jail.

These events began with a 911 call at 11:52 p.m. on March 16 – a Friday night – in which a neighbor reported Clark had hit his girlfriend, Salena Manni, who is the mother of their two children.

The girlfriend told officers Clark had hit her in the face four to five times, punching her with a fist and slapping her before shoving her head into the wall, where police found a 3-inch diameter hole, according to the report.

The girlfriend “appeared traumatized and distraught to the officers,” Schubert’s report states.

“She was crying and breathing at a fast rate. The left side of her face was swollen, including under her left eye, cheekbone and lip.”

Clark, who was on probation for two cases of domestic violence against the girlfriend, one for robbery and a fourth for loitering for prostitution, was not there when officers arrived.

But data extracted from the iPhone he was using – which belonged to the girlfriend – show he tried to call her 76 times in the day after 911 was called, the report states.

The data also included screenshots of text messages between the two during which she writes that she has reported him to the police and that “you’ll be locked in a cage the rest of ur life and never see your kids grow again,” the report says.

Clark responds that he didn’t harm her and was sorry for leaving.

“This ain’t right,” he texts at one point.

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By Saturday afternoon, on March 17, Clark was using the phone to search the internet for the district attorney’s office and begins trying to reach his probation officer, who did not immediately see the messages because of the weekend.

At 2:55 p.m. that afternoon, he wrote a note on the phone indicating that he was worried about his girlfriend reporting him to police and that “I’m really innocent and I want to defend myself.”

The note was found stored on the phone after he was killed, but was never sent to prosecutors or his probation officer, the report says.

He continued trying to reach his probation officer – “I have to talk to you. It’s urgent” – one instant message reads, and he resumed messaging his girlfriend.

“You know I genuinely love you and my kids,” Clark wrote in one message. “This isn’t our end baby.”

By that evening, Clark began conducting internet searches with topics such as “how much bleach can I drink before I die” and “easiest ways to kill yourself,” the report says.

“What is the quickest and easiest way to kill yourself?” one search reads. “What pills can you die from,” reads another.

Clark also began texting people asking for Valium or Xanax, and at 10:07 p.m. sent his girlfriend a photo of 10 pills in a palm with the message, “Let’s fix our family or I’m taking all of these.”

His girlfriend responded with a text reading, “Do it idgaf,” the report says, adding that the abbreviation is commonly used for the phrase “I don’t give a f---.”

Then the girlfriend sent one last message – “I knew you was gone blow my money on drugs anyways,” the report says.

Clark then began contacting old girlfriends and began attempting to find Xanax and other drugs, the review says.

Stephon Clark is shot

His next contact with police came March 18, a Sunday, at about 9 p.m. when 911 calls began to come in about someone breaking into cars in the 7900 block of 29th Street and nearby areas.

Mercadel and Robinet were dispatched, and a Sacramento sheriff’s helicopter responded to help.

The report says officers saw Clark run and jump a fence into a backyard, where he used a cinder block to smash a glass back door at the home of an 89-year-old man who was sitting watching television.

Clark continued running, stopped near an SUV in a dark area, then began running again as Mercadel shouted, “Stop, Stop!” the report says.

Clark ran into a backyard where there was no lighting and no porch light – officers didn’t realize at the time it was his grandparents’ home – and Mercadel came around the corner of the home to see Clark with “the hood of his sweatshirt pulled up and his arms extended out in front of him at chest level consistent with a shooting position,” the report states.

Mercadel saw a “metallic flash” he thought was from a firearm and, believing someone had fired at him, shouted “Gun” and took cover behind the corner, the review says.

When Mercadel looked back around the corner, he saw Clark had moved 10 feet toward him and was still advancing, the report says.

Robinet looked around the corner, also, and saw “what appeared to be light reflecting off a metallic object in Clark’s hands, and could not tell exactly what it was, but feared it was a firearm based on the way Clark was holding it,” the report says.

The two officers ended up firing a total of 20 shots – seven hit Clark, according to the county’s autopsy. Enhanced versions of Mercadel’s body camera video shows Clark “appears to have raised his lower arms and hands to his chest area, consistent with the officers’ descriptions,” the report says.

The report also says that after Mercadel sees a flash of light and shouts “Show me your hands. Gun,” enhanced audio of the encounter indicates that investigators believe they hear Clark responding, “F--- you.”

Much of the deadly confrontation was captured on body cameras and helicopter videos that Sacramento police released after the shooting, and the report notes that the officers can be heard asking each other if they were all right or had been hit by gunfire.

‘Looked like a gun’

They also can be heard yelling at Clark after he was shot that they cannot help him until he turns over his firearm.

When a sergeant asks the officers “what’s he have on him?” Robinet responds that “it looked like a gun from our perspective,” the report says.

Officers then approach Clark and discover the cellphone near his face.

About 90 seconds later, someone is heard saying “mute” and Robinet’s and Mercadel’s microphones go silent, the report states.

Schubert’s report does not address further who ordered the mute or why.

But her report says interviews with the officers indicate both “actually believed their lives were in danger” and that they thought “he was pointing a handgun at them.”

“Within moments after firing, the officers checked themselves and each other for injuries, thinking Clark had or could have fired at them,” the report says, adding that both can be heard breathing heavily, which “demonstrates the physical stress they experienced of believing their lives were in danger.”

“Under these facts, it cannot be said that Officers Mercadel and Robinet were unreasonable in their beliefs that Clark had a gun and was about to shoot them,” Schubert wrote. “While it is tragic that Clark in fact was holding a cellular phone, the law judges the officers’ actions based upon the reasonable perception of the threat.

“The evidence proves that Officers Mercadel and Robinet acted lawfully under the circumstances.”

Schubert’s report was released in a news conference in a district attorney’s conference room downtown as calls for new protests ricocheted across social media platforms.

Business and government leaders have warned residents for days to stay away from the downtown area at least through the weekend for fear of protest marches.

Last year, as marchers blocked access to the Golden 1 Center and stopped traffic on Interstate 5, officials erected fences and barriers around the arena and dispatched dozens of officers to deal with the crowds.

Saturday morning, as a heavy rain fell, there were few indications of such preparations. The only fencing going up early in the day was for the annual Capitol Beer Fest scheduled to be held on the Capitol Mall.

The news conference marks the first time since Schubert’s 2014 election that she has announced the results of an officer-involved shooting publicly. Typically, the results of such reviews are posted on the district attorney’s website without notice.

But because of the massive protests the shooting spawned last year – including marches that led officials to erect a fence surrounding her building at Ninth and G streets to keep demonstrators away from the front doors and parking lot – Schubert’s office has approached this review with caution.

Officials were still putting finishing touches on the report Friday night, and office lights were on in the upper floors of the building before dawn Saturday as they prepared to release the documents.

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Sam Stanton has worked for The Bee since 1991 and has covered a variety of issues, including politics, criminal justice and breaking news.