Promises broken? Sacramento’s handling of protesters called a ‘breach of faith’

‘We were cuffed and sat on the cold sidewalk for hours.’ Reverend on arrest at Clark protest

Rev. Mary Westfall describes her Monday night arrest in East Sacramento by Sacramento Police. She was attending a rally in support of AB 392, a bill that would change police rules for use of force on Thursday, March 7, 2019.
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Rev. Mary Westfall describes her Monday night arrest in East Sacramento by Sacramento Police. She was attending a rally in support of AB 392, a bill that would change police rules for use of force on Thursday, March 7, 2019.

Two days before Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert announced she wouldn’t file criminal charges against the police officers who fatally shot Stephon Clark, Chief Daniel Hahn sat at a table with the Rev. Mary Westfall, a pastor with the Presbytery of Sacramento.

Hahn and his officers had met with Westfall, other clergy and black community leaders for several months, bringing in speakers on transformational policing and discussing how both sides could help deescalate tense situations after Schubert’s inevitable announcement. The city wanted avoid another national black eye like the one it wore after Clark’s death, when protesters shut down Golden 1 Center and took over city council meetings; activists wanted a guarantee that they could peacefully express themselves without facing force.

“Many faith leaders had been working with law enforcement to say ‘when this day comes, we want to do it differently,’” Westphal said. “We worked hard with the communities who are most affected by this egregious injustice to really tell them, ‘trust for now. We are assured we won’t be met with violence. Demonstrate, grieve, express your anger and outrage.”

In her last meeting with Hahn before the DA’s decision, Westfall gave a gentle reminder of what was to come.

“I looked him in the face and said, ‘Chief Hahn, in a few days, we’re going to be facing each other in different circumstances. Remember what we’ve done here. Remember who these people are that your law enforcement (agents) will be looking at,’” Westfall recalled Thursday.

What followed, Westfall said, was “a total breach of faith.”

Riot cops outnumbered protesters on Monday’s march through East Sacramento, one of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods, then broke the rally up with threats of tear gas and Tasers after activists allegedly keyed at least seven cars. More than 80 people – including Westfall, other faith leaders and working journalists – were rounded up, handcuffed and taken to Cal Expo, where they were released after midnight with citations for failure to disperse. Schubert announced Friday that she wouldn’t pursue charges against any of those arrested.

All but six of the arrests came on the 51st Street overpass above Highway 50, where protesters said they had nowhere to go after police gathered at both entrances. As noted by Westfall and Pastor Les Simmons of South Sacramento Christian Center, who was also arrested on the overpass, the image of riot police closing in on bridge protesters called to mind Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama in 1965.

In the months leading up to Schubert’s announcement Saturday, city leaders made a concentrated effort to assuage the groups they thought would be most upset by her findings. Mayor Darrell Steinberg announced he would push for $200 million in newly-approved Measure U tax money to benefit the city’s poorest neighborhoods such as Clark’s Meadowview, and the city started funding weekend “pop up” activity nights for teens. The police department assigned prospective higher-ups a book called “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome” on top of a new foot chase policy implemented last summer.

Hahn repeatedly sat in meetings with black mental health professionals as they planned to make safe spaces and resources available in anticipation of Schubert’s announcement, said Flojaune Cofer, the senior director of policy for Public Health Advocates. He answered logistical questions but otherwise stayed out of planning discussions, Cofer said.

Cofer is also a member of The Table Sacramento, which organized Monday’s rally, and she left just before the arrests began. Having Hahn in the room during those meetings made her think the police department was committed to institutional reform, she said.

After Monday, she wasn’t so sure.

“If they had taken a step forward, given the things that have happened over the past few years, they took hundreds of steps back,” Cofer said. “The relationship, the trust ... if they’re looking to win friends and influence people, Monday night was the worst way they could have done that.”

Not all events unfolded this way. Other plans to deal with protesters have held up. The Kings were effectively ignored by protesters after spending the year building alliances with black community groups and closing Downtown Commons to anyone without a ticket before and during Monday’s game.

Or on Tuesday, impassioned speakers threatened to take over the City Council and Steinberg and the rest of the council simply walked out of the chambers until the room calmed down. The message was clear: everyone will get their three minutes to speak, but we’re running the meeting.

In a statement Monday night, Steinberg said he was “very disappointed” about the way the East Sacramento protest ended. City Manager Howard Chan, who oversees the police department along with every other city office, stopped short of saying he shared the mayor’s disappointment, but did say he wants to know what caused the department to respond the way it did.

“We deal with protests all the time and this is an uncommon outcome for our department,” Chan told the Bee Wednesday. “I’d love to know what those events were that led to this outcome.”

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

Monday’s 84 arrests far exceeded the handful of arrests in all of 2018 during many Clark protests. No one was arrested Thursday, when hundreds of people – most of them students – marched for four hours until reaching the Capitol.

Chan said he has confidence in Hahn, the city’s first African American police chief, to manage the department.

“I brought him on board because he’s a subject matter expert here,” Chan said. “He’s a change agent here.”

In an interview after Tuesday’s raucous City Council meeting, Hahn said he had an unnamed incident commander in charge of the protest and wasn’t present himself.

Hahn told the council he would come back with an update in a couple of weeks after reviewing the case, a time frame that left Steinberg unsatisfied. Waiting that long could hurt the momentum the city had built up over the last few months, Steinberg said in an interview with The Bee.

“(Monday) was a setback. But it does not have to be a long-term or permanent setback, and I insist that it not be a long-term or permanent setback,” Steinberg said. “And the first step is to investigate what happened and then to account for the results.”

Neither the police department nor its critics are going anywhere. Sacramento will have to come up with tangible policy solutions once others, such as Shane Harris, the Los Angeles-based reverend, have left town.

Harris called for Hahn’s firing at Tuesday’s City Council meeting after being arrested Monday night. Later, he contacted The Bee and said he misspoke, he only wished for the officers who shot Clark to be terminated.

Perhaps hindsight is needed to get a clear picture of how badly Monday’s bust damaged police relations with various Sacramento communities. It marked a low point in Simmons’ 30-some years watching and participating in protests in Sacramento, he said.

Steinberg, meanwhile, has called for an independent investigation into the police department’s conduct Monday night in addition to Hahn’s internal analysis, and wants to keep pushing divergent groups together.

“I intend to use my office to facilitate real conversations between rank-and-file police officers and community members, especially young community members, to talk and to listen to one another,” Steinberg said. “(But) I can only be the translator in so many ways. People need to talk to each other.”

This story was updated on March 12 to reflect Shane Harris’ clarification that he said he misspoke at the City Council meeting.

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Benjy Egel covers local restaurants and bars for The Sacramento Bee as well as general breaking news and investigative projects. A Sacramento native, he previously covered business for the Amarillo Globe-News in Texas.
Theresa Clift covers Sacramento City Hall. Before joining The Bee in 2018, she worked as a local government reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Daily Press in Virginia and the Wausau Daily Herald in Wisconsin. She grew up in Michigan and graduated from Central Michigan University.