A turbulent week in Sacramento divided people and prompted civil demonstrations and mass arrests on local streets. We witnessed a profane four-hour Sacramento City Council meeting where Mayor Darrell Steinberg – and other elected officials – were berated and called vile names by frustrated people.
All of this and more has happened since Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert announced on March 2 she would not prosecute the two city cops who killed an unarmed Stephon Clark almost a year ago.
Many readers have vented at me for criticizing some elements of law enforcement. They have called me “anti-cop.” They say I have sown dissension and encouraged violence in my Bee columns.
What follows is a sincere attempt to respond to a representative sampling of people who generally agree with Schubert and are concerned about the public reaction to her decision.
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Rich sent this email Friday: “Since you a have taken on the role as the lead cop hater at The Bee I thought I would make a few comments regarding the last of your nonstop rants... (Stephon) Clark didn’t deserve to die but his actions caused him to sadly die. Using a cell phone like a gun in the darkness was not a good move. Two big questions, among many, are: Even though two law enforcement agencies have cleared the policemen, what do you want done to satisfy your pain problems? And if these identical actions and results were done by a person, not of color, would you or the activists endlessly report/distort the story as you have ?
Dear Rich: I don’t hate any individual and I don’t hate cops. That label has been pinned on me a lot in the last few years, including by some law enforcement leaders such as Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones. But instead of simply denying it, let me explain my approach when I’ve written about the use of deadly force by law enforcement.
To begin with, no institutions in our communities have greater power than law enforcement. Why? Because law enforcement has the awesome power of being legally sanctioned to use deadly force in the line of duty. Police officers even have that power when they guess wrong about a suspect, as city cops did with Clark. They claim they thought Clark had a gun. He had a cell phone. They killed him even though they guessed wrong about what was in his hand. They will not face criminal charges because they told fellow cops investigating them that they feared for their lives. U.S. Supreme Court precedent allows cops to kill if they have a “reasonable” fear for their lives.
In a city, such as Sacramento, who has more power than that?
In a free society, the role of the press and the public is to push back against power and to insist that power isn’t abused. Because when power isn’t checked, it can corrupt.
I don’t want to see law enforcement officers in danger or killed. Three days before Schubert’s decision, I condemned the words of a UC Davis professor who has stated publicly that cops should be killed. Informed by my Catholic faith, I don’t think violence is ever the answer or is ever acceptable – whether it’s directed at police officers or anyone else.
But to your other points – that Clark caused his death by his actions – I personally don’t agree with the number of people who have expressed a similar view. Do you really think everyone should be OK with what happened to Clark? We should all just shrug and say, “oh well?”
I’m sorry, but no. First, statistical evidence shows California has a high rate of police killings. Statistical evidence shows young people like Clark, who was 22, and ethnic and racial minorities are overrepresented as victims of police violence.
Community pressure has caused Sacramento Police to revise its foot-pursuit policies. Why did it do this? Because nobody I know in law enforcement was happy with the outcome in the Clark case. He was breaking windows. He should have gone to jail that night for misdemeanor crimes. He went to the morgue.
That is terrible outcome considering why Clark drew the attention of law enforcement in the first place. Other readers say, “Well, he had a criminal record.” Schubert told us that Clark had been researching suicide before he was killed.
OK, but the police officers didn’t know that when they confronted Clark. They didn’t know anything about him so you can’t suggest, as some have, that Clark’s prior actions informed how the police officers dealt with him. They didn’t. His prior actions only became known after he was dead. Why didn’t Clark obey commands? We don’t know, he’s dead. And you know what? There are examples in other cities of black men obeying police commands and still ending up dead. Google Philando Castile.
What do I want done? I want all police agencies in California to re-train officers on use of deadly force. And on dealing with people who have emotional issues. And on de-escalating turbulent situations. I want law enforcement agencies to be more introspective about the implicit bias that officers have when dealing with people in high poverty neighborhoods.
I want law enforcement leaders who are elected by the voters – such as Schubert, Jones and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra – to stop taking money from each other or any other law enforcement groups when running for office. This creates obvious conflicts of interest. I want the state legislature to create a statewide task force that investigates cases when officers use deadly force so that DAs like Schubert will no longer be investigating agencies with whom their offices have obvious conflicts of interest.
And finally, to the question of, why isn’t there a bigger outcry when white people are killed by cops? Racial minorities express outrage because they are overrepresented in police shootings. At the risk of answering a question with a question, but why don’t more white people show concern over the numerous times cops use deadly force? Last year, I wrote about the case of Chad Irwin, a white man from Citrus Heights who had emotional issues and was killed by county sheriff’s deputies. The county just settled a wrongful death suit with Irwin’s family.
The deputy who killed Irwin did not have the best training available to deal with the mentally ill. Why not?
Terry from Sacramento writes: “You have really gone too far. Sacramento is one of the least racist places in the country and you are acting like we are 1965 in the south. ...This race baiting is going up cause serious problems, if people like you don’t stop inflaming things.”
Dear Terry: Sacramento is where I have chosen to live, I’ve lived here for nearly 30 years, and if you had suggested to me in 1989 that I would still be here in 2019, I would have laughed. Sacramento is diverse in many ways and I want to live nowhere else. But we are not always as cool as we think we are. Racist housing covenants kept minorities out of well-heeled neighborhoods such as the Fabulous 40s, Curtis Park, River Park, Land Park and others for many decades. That’s partly why protestors picked the Fabulous 40s as the place to raise their voices for Clark. Communities such as Oak Park, Meadowview, Del Paso Heights, Strawberry Manor, Lemon Hill and others have been subjected to horrible land-use policies. Some of these neighborhoods have been divided by freeways. Some have been the dumping grounds for liquor stores, pay-day loans and now– if the Sacramento City Council has its way – homeless shelters.
Sacramento did not elect its first African American mayor until 2008. It selected its first African American police chief in 2017. Our police department has been severely lacking in racial and ethnic diversity for a long time. Pretty much every African American man I know in Sacramento has a story about an unpleasant encounter with law enforcement in Sacramento. And that list includes Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn.
All these things are true. And what’s also true is that privileged people like you and I can bump around town without any of the fears that some of our fellow residents have in neighboring communities.
So when I write these about some of these realities, I’m not condemning our community. I love our community. And you know what? The Clark protesters who I know also love our community. They want it to be better. I want it to be better. We can make it better if talk openly about the truth.
Jackie writes: “THE POLICE MEN ARE DAMN IF THEY DO, AND “DEAD IF THEY DO NOT”.
Dear Jackie: Actually, the data show that killings of police officers are at record lows. Obviously, when one police officer is killed that is one too many, but the numbers have actually been going down and I hope that continues.
Mitchell writes: “You continue to justify bad behavior. If you commit a crime you should be held accountable. “
Dear Mitchell: I agree. Clark should have gone to jail the night of March 18, 2018. As I said before, he went to the morgue.
Jeremy writes: “I have two nieces and a nephew who work for the Yolo County Sheriff’s office, two as deputies. Thus I’m guessing that, unlike you, I necessarily have a somewhat more nuanced view of police-involved shootings. Because in addition to the often blameless victims, I am thinking about the deadly danger that my close family members face every time they go to work.”
Dear Jeremy: No doubt about it. Law enforcement is dangerous work. I want your family members to come home safe every day. But I don’t think there is anything wrong with wanting them to get better training to attempt to avoid outcomes like Clark. I think reasonable people also believe that sometimes, an officer has no choice but to kill a suspect. But enough examples in our region have prompted reasonable people to ask: Did this person need to die?
Asking that question and pressing for an answer doesn’t mean we are putting law enforcement in danger. We want to preserve life. Life is sacred and when it’s taken, we can’t go back.