Legal claim puts city ‘on notice’ for civil rights suit over Stephon Clark protest arrests

An attorney for the scores arrested in East Sacramento’s Stephon Clark protests earlier this month is laying the groundwork for a federal civil rights suit with a claim against the city of Sacramento, the city’s Police Department and Sacramento County for officers’ actions that night.

Sacramento civil rights attorney Mark Merin was joined for the Monday morning announcement by Sacramento NAACP President Betty Williams, green-capped National Lawyers Guild observers, local activists and others on the 51st Street Bridge.

Monday marked one year since Sacramento police officers shot the 22-year-old Clark dead in the backyard of his grandmother’s Meadowview home after they responded to reports of a man breaking car windows. The two officers mistook the cellphone the unarmed African-American man carried for a firearm, later saying Clark took a shooting stance before they opened fire.

Monday also marked three weeks since demonstrations in the leafy Fabulous 40s neighborhood in East Sacramento March 4 on news that the Sacramento officers who killed Clark would not face criminal charges in the fatal shooting.

Sacramento police rounded up, detained and arrested 84 people on the 51st Street overpass including clergy leaders, legal observers and working journalists. The mass arrests on the 51st Street span at the end of what had been a spirited but peaceful protests angered activists, legal observers and free-speech advocates and left city leaders demanding answers.

“This is a prerequisite, so this puts them on notice,” Merin said Monday. Next comes a Sacramento federal court lawsuit against the city, county and state alleging First Amendment violations and false arrest along with injuries and damages.

Sacramento officials received the claim Tuesday, said city spokesman Tim Swanson, who declined to talk its specifics, but said the city “remains committed to protecting both public safety and First Amendment rights.”

Merin could also get help from the NAACP. Sacramento chapter officials have been in contact with the civil rights organization’s national leaders and its legal defense fund to support the legal fight, Williams said. It’s yet unclear what that support will entail, but “We are joining forces on a national level to help with the lawsuit,” Williams said.

Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn, Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones, California Highway Patrol and the state of California are also named as parties in the claim.

Merin’s class claim on behalf of lead plaintiff William C. Colburn details how and when the protest transformed into a scene of riot gear-clad officers herding demonstrators onto the span and loading them into buses headed for Cal Expo.

Merin alleged officers used “kettling” tactics against the crowd, surrounding the marchers and preventing them from leaving before arresting the group en masse for engaging in an unlawful assembly.

Merin, in the claim, alleged the detained were held for hours, denied access to restrooms and later loaded into vans and other detention vehicles for a breakneck trip to Cal Expo at speeds exceeding 90 mph.

One of the protesters was Brandy Wood-Bains. Her left foot was broken, she said, during the police roundup on the 51st Street overpass. She sat, arrested, her injury untreated for three hours on the bridge before paramedics arrived. She was then taken to Cal Expo and spent more hours there in custody.

Wood-Bains relived that night for reporters, at times near tears as she gripped a relative’s hand for support next to the same bridge she was hustled to three weeks ago.

“People asked, ‘What happened to you. Who hurt you?’ I was scared because it was police. I get mad that this happened. I was doing what was right. That night was so beautiful – the vibe – then it turned into a nightmare,” an emotional Wood-Bains said.

“What I do know is there is no excuse for that night. Whether it be the mayor, the city manager, the chief of police or whoever carries some kind of title that gives them some kind of level up on my community, you took us back years. Years,” she said. “I’m 43 years old. That’s something I should never have had to experience. This is 2019. Sacramento took us back years on this.”

Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert declined days later to file charges in the protests, but not before the mass arrests sparked new outrage and is leading to changes in how city police handle future protests. Her decision not to file criminal charges against the officers after a nearly year-long investigation into Clark’s fatal shooting was a catalyst for the protests.

Sacramento police said its officers ratcheted up their response to the marchers after they reported seeing that cars parked along the march route were being “keyed,” and after protesters blocked the entrance to Mercy General Hospital, Sacramento police officials have said.

Officers donned protective gear and called in Sacramento County sheriff’s deputies and California Highway Patrol officers after they reported protesters blocking the roadway and at least one person holding what may have been a flare.

“Our fear was that similar crimes were now going to occur in another neighborhood,” Sacramento Deputy Chief of Police Dave Paletta told City Council members at a March 12 council meeting one week after the mass arrests. Paletta added that the arrests happened on the bridge because that was where the demonstrators were when additional officers arrived.

“Our goal was to provide public safety to the affected area,” Paleta said.

But Merin also alleges law enforcement intentionally targeted local press covering the event to blunt coverage that could show police misconduct.

Sacramento Bee reporter Dale Kasler and reporters from the Sacramento Business Journal and California State University, Sacramento newspaper, the State Hornet, were among those detained or arrested and taken into custody. Bee senior photographer Hector Amezcua was shoved to the ground by a bicycle officer while covering the protests and arrests.

In the days since the arrests, Sacramento police now have “community liaisons” – community leaders or clergy members associated with protests – whom they talk to throughout a protest to discuss courses of action, said Paletta.

Police are also considering whether to eliminate a threat of “lethal force” when they give orders to disperse and say they will give clear direction to people on how and where they can disperse, Paletta said.

Police are also planning to hold meetings with media before protests and are considering other changes to crowd control policies.

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