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What’s up, chief? How don’t you know why Sac PD made a mess on our streets?

Sacramento Police Chief speaks about arrests at Stephon Clark protest

Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn speaks about arrests at Stephon Clark protest on March 4, 2019.
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Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn speaks about arrests at Stephon Clark protest on March 4, 2019.

I’ve known Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn for more than a decade and have never seen him as stricken as he was Tuesday night when he had no answers for why his officers arrested 84 people at a relatively small demonstration in East Sacramento on Monday.

Hahn not only had no answers, he told Tony Bizjak of The Bee that he “wasn’t there” on Monday night. He said he didn’t know who was in charge of police tactics then.

If we take Chief Hahn at his word, then it is extremely disturbing that the face of Sacramento PD knew little or nothing about one of the more critical confrontations between the public and police in recent memory. Or maybe Hahn is covering for people below him? Neither scenario is good.

What’s up, Chief? One minute, citizens were protesting because Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert wouldn’t prosecute the city cops who, roughly a year ago, shot and killed an unarmed Stephon Clark. Then, suddenly, you had students, members of clergy, journalists and others sitting cross-legged on the ground with their hands bound behind their backs while being guarded by cops in riot gear.

It made no sense. After Clark was shot to death on March 18, 2018, the protests around the city were much larger and much more heated and yet city cops showed great restraint, kept the peace and barely arrested anyone.

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A year ago, protesters shut down I-5. They blocked major arteries around town. They caused more than one Sacramento Kings game to be played before high school sized crowds because they formed a human chain around Golden 1 Center preventing paying customers access.

Some people who were inconvenienced by the 2018 Clark protests criticized Sac PD, but they were wrong. By showing restraint then, riots were averted at Golden 1 Center, near I-5 and around town.

Now, a year later, instead of sticking with crowd-control plans that worked, people were rounded up in East Sacramento by the dozens after a few hours of demonstrating in and near the Fabulous 40s, one of the most affluent neighborhoods in the state capital.

Did a consortium of rich neighbors call in some favors? Were city cops acting as virtual security guards for Sacramento’s legacy wealth? Did reports of a few gracious cars getting keyed really result in a re-enactment of the detention scene from “Children of Men?“

Seriously? We don’t round people up when a freeway cutting through the heart of Sacramento is temporarily closed or when NBA games are played before nearly empty houses, but we do round people up when cars get keyed in the Fab 40s?

This isn’t going to end well if we learn that the disproportionate response by Sac PD was a result of some hard-line policy shift away from more reasonable tactics that used to be the department’s hallmark.

I’ve seen it. I’ve seen Sac PD de-escalate dangerous situations – large protests and smaller sized neighborhood confrontations – by being smart, strategic and understanding that having the power to show force doesn’t mean you need to use it.

If Chief Hahn was truly out of the loop, then that’s a huge problem because authorities had time to plan this. Schubert announced that she wasn’t prosecuting the cops who killed Clark early in the day on Saturday. You had Saturday afternoon and evening, all of Sunday and Monday to get ready before the first public gathering of more than a small handful of people had massed together.

It’s not like people took the streets within hours after Schubert stopped speaking.

The first African American police chief in city history, Hahn was heckled as he began his remarks on Tuesday at the outset at of what became a four-hour hearing Sacramento City Council hearing Residents vented rage at Hahn, council members, the city manager and each other.

I sat in the council chamber for the full four hours and I’m here to tell you, Mayor Darrell Steinberg took hours of verbal bullets for what went down in East Sacramento.

It was brutal. One guy called Steinberg names that no human being would want to be called. When he jumped up on a lectern, the chamber came close to boiling over. This was leftover anger from the night before.

And to their credit, Sac PD officers showed restraint. They got the guy off the lectern. They massed in enough numbers to make the more strident voices think twice about trying anything. The officers stood stoically when speaker after speaker yelled in their direction.

Mind you, senior citizens and some kids were in the chamber. They were joined by some forces doing everything they could to cause trouble and incite others to pile on. Again, the cops showed restraint. Their presence kept the peace. People left jangled after four hours of screaming, venting and verbal abuse. But they arrived home safe.

So, thank you, Sacramento Police, for that.

But what happened Monday?

According to reliable witnesses , Sac PD officers on Monday encircled protesters, ordered them to disperse and then arrested them when they had nowhere to go.

“We were just trying to keep the peace, just trying to disperse, “ the Rev. Pamela Anderson, a local faith leader in the Presbyterian Church, said to Hector Amezcua of The Bee. “As clergy, we were not going to leave people who were still emotional. As we were trying to disperse there were police down side streets so we couldn’t go down side streets. Then as we tried to go over the overpass but police officers came in on their bikes, blocked us there, then came in from behind and suddenly we’re all getting arrested.

“It was something like out of a movie,” she said. “There was a helicopter overhead, our shadows were all over the ground. Clergy were lined up in the front with our hands were up. We were just trying to remain calm and not resist arrest.”

Other clergy members told similar stories. Honestly, this was an unforced error that couldn’t come at a worse time for Sacramento. The Clark killing and aftermath remain national news because they symbolize stubborn inequality that are a part of our civic past and endure in our present.

Well-meaning friends who live in the region, but not in the city, have asked me: Why are people glorifying Stephon Clark? He had a record, they said. He disobeyed police, a friend texted me earlier this week.

In my opinion, he’s not being glorified. He was a troubled young man. The point of Clark’s story, in my view and the view of others, can be distilled down to a question: Did he have to die?

Police were chasing him because he was breaking windows. That’s why police were called to get him. That’s why a helicopter was tracking him overhead. He was breaking windows and anyone who says otherwise is distorting facts presented by the district attorney and the attorney general.

Clark didn’t respond to police commands and we will never know why because he’s dead. Hahn has already changed the department foot-pursuit policy. The goal is to change outcomes.

If Clark had a gun that night, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. He had a cellphone. The most depressing aspect of the Clark aftermath, for me, are the number of people who suggest or flat-out state – that Clark deserved to die. The record in this city and other cities show that many people disobey police officers and even brandish firearms without going to the morgue.

Another depressing event in the aftermath of this killing that roils Sacramento? That police dressed for a riot when a demonstration broke out. Because when that happened, people who already can’t bring Clark back to life were denied the constitutional right to raise their voices in shared pain. When that happened, four hours of screaming at the City Council chambers was inevitable.

Then the chief said he wasn’t there and didn’t know who was in charge? These are trying times in a city we love.

Follow more of our reporting on Shooting of Stephon Clark

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Marcos Breton writes commentary and opinion columns about the Sacramento region, California and the United States. He’s been a California newspaperman for more than 30 years. He’s a graduate of San Jose State University, a voter for the Baseball Hall of Fame and the proud son of Mexican immigrants.
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