Sacramento mayor, City Council want independent investigation of Stephon Clark protest arrests

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg and members of the City Council on Tuesday directed the city’s public safety accountability office to investigate police tactics used during a street protest Monday in East Sacramento that ended in 84 arrests and prompted complaints from activists that they had been tricked and trapped by police as they were trying to get to their cars to go home.

The mayor said Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn is conducting an internal investigation, but “an independent investigation will help ensure that the public knows exactly what transpired.”

“I want to guarantee the right of peaceful protest and freedom of the press while simultaneously protecting public safety,” Steinberg said in a public statement Tuesday afternoon.

Steinberg, who said he was making the request in conjunction with the City Council, said he and the council are asking the city’s public safety accountability officer Francine Tournour to provide answers as quickly as possible.

A mayoral spokeswoman also said the mayor plans to use this evening’s City Council meeting at City Hall as a public airing of matters related to the Stephon Clark shooting, including what happened Monday during the four-hour march.

Marchers Monday night were protesting Saturday’s announcement by the district attorney that she would not prosecute the two city police officers who shot and killed Clark, a 22-year-old black man, mistakenly thinking the cellphone in his hand was a gun. The group was calling for the firing of the two officers.

Steinberg was unavailable for direct comment Tuesday, but in a conversation with The Sacramento Bee Monday night, the mayor expressed surprise and dismay at the arrests. “I’m very disappointed with the way this ended,” Steinberg told The Bee. “But I want to withhold judgment until I ask some serious questions.”

The mayor intervened Monday night in one instance to ask police to release Sacramento Bee reporter Dale Kasler, who was covering the event for the Bee and was detained in handcuffs for an hour alongside protestors. Two other local news reporters were said to have been arrested.

The arrests occurred late in the march, after police said they had informed the group numerous times that the event had become an illegal gathering. Police repeatedly ordered the marchers to disperse, a spokesman said. Officials said they had reports of people committing vandalism by “keying” five cars. Police provided no updated information on the alleged vandalism Tuesday.

Police in riot gear forced the marchers east on Folsom Boulevard, then south on 51st Street. That group, however, was then blocked on the 51st Street bridge over Highway 50 by officers on horseback and on bikes who had been positioned on the south side of the bridge.

Kasler and protest leaders say many of those arrested were walking back to their cars after begin ordered by police to disperse. All but one of the arrests were for unlawful assembly, police said. One arrest was for resisting an officer.

Steinberg, in his press statement Tuesday, listed seven questions he said he wants the city’s public safety accountability officer to look into:

What caused police to call for dispersal? What were the circumstances of the arrests? Where people arrested who were trying to leave but were trapped? What is the distinction between press and public during protests? Who was in command of all agencies involved? Why were people sent in one direction then blocked and arrested? What process is in place to revoke or dismiss journalists that were processed.

Tournour said her office will investigate those questions, as well as any other questions the office hears after talking to people who were there.

“It appears the community was right in line with what they were supposed to be doing and how it should be done, but obviously there were arrests, so people have a lot of concerns surrounding that,” Tournour said.

Tournour does not have a timeline for when the investigation will be done, but said she will not have answers in time for Tuesday’s council meeting.

It’s the first time the mayor and council have asked the office to investigate police action at a protest since the office was placed under the purview of the mayor and council in June 2017, Tournour said.

Police had not arrested more than five people at other Clark protests last year or this year. Protest co-organizer Berry Accius told The Bee he believes the police stepped up their enforcement because protesters were marching in a wealthy neighborhood this time, rather than downtown or in south Sacramento.

“We’ve been protesting for five years and they’ve been peaceful and we’ve never had this many arrests,” he said. “We disrupted a privileged community and they wanted to show us who has the power, but they awoke a beast. We are going to be more reckless and more unapologetic.”

One of those arrested, Rev. Shane Harris, a representative of Salena Manni, Clark’s fiancee, said he had just talked with officers who had asked him to guide marchers away from the march ending site at Folsom Boulevard at 51st Street.

“This is a complete insult,” Harris said. “They cornered everybody purposely. This is why people in this town are sick and tired of police.”

Protester Ryan McClinton, who was arrested for failure to disperse, said police surrounded protesters, pushing some of them down the street past their cars.

“I’ve never seen that in all the different protests I’ve been in,” he said. “It shows you who is valued in Sacramento. There were protests that were held in south Sacramento, protests in downtown, and the moment it hit East Sacramento, it was an overwhelming show of force.”

Hahn declined to make himself available after Bee requests for comments on Monday night and Tuesday.

Former Sacramento County Sheriff John McGinness, contacted by The Bee, said he could not recall an instance in which a reporter was detained during a protest environment. “I have seen reporters detained before, but not in a crowd control situation, in other situations,” McGinness said.

McGinness added that if it is abundantly clear that a person is a media member merely observing the demonstration, they “certainly” should not be detained or arrested. “There’s no doubt that this will be the subject of a lot of discussion, a lot of after-event investigation,” McGinness said. “It should be scrutinized, and I have no doubt it will be.”

McGinness said vandalism or property damage, even at a relatively small frequency, can be enough for police to deem a demonstration unlawful. “If your car’s about to be keyed, I would submit that you would probably want the police to stop that,” McGinness said. “Is it the crime of the century? No, but it’s the first indication as unlawful activity begins to break out.”

City Hall officials expect an overflow crowd for the 5 p.m. City Council meeting. Police say they will have extra officers on duty at City Hall.

Last year, during a heated first City Council meeting after the Clark shooting, Clark’s brother and a small group disrupted the proceeding, shouting at the mayor to shut up, and prompting Steinberg to shut the meeting down. A large group then marched to Golden 1 Center and blockaded fans from getting into that night’s Kings game.

Members of the public who want to share concerns or questions with the Office of Public Safety Accountability should call 916-808-7525.

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Tony Bizjak has been reporting for The Bee for 30 years. He covers transportation, housing and development and previously was the paper’s City Hall beat reporter.