Prominent black and religious leaders will pressure Sacramento City Council members this week to increase independent review of police actions and video footage of incidents such as the July killing of a mentally ill black man by officers.
The black community has seized on the July 11 death of Joseph Mann, who was behaving erratically with a knife but appeared to be walking away from police before being shot dead, according to witnesses. The Mann case has raised concerns over how Sacramento police operate in minority communities and how their officers approach mentally ill individuals.
Black leaders say they are frustrated with their inability to obtain information or footage that can explain police actions in cases in which they say officers should have avoided deadly force. They want members of the City Council – four of whom are black – to do more to compel the Police Department to provide video, audio and reports in cases in which many questions remain.
“We deserve to have a Police Department that is transparent, open and honest; and we have a right to be involved in it,” said Richard Owen, head of the African American community group Law Enforcement Accountability Directive, which is leading the push. “We are at the point where we think (City Council members) are really underestimating the rage and disappointment that the African American community is feeling towards our policing.”
Owen said transparency is needed to avoid the kind of civil unrest that has erupted in cities such as Ferguson, Mo.
For now, the City Council itself has been unable to obtain sensitive details from police shootings. Two weeks ago, several council members asked for a private viewing of footage from the Mann incident. They rescinded their demand after an outside lawyer advised against it because the Mann family has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit and claim against the city.
Activists from LEAD, Black Lives Matter, the NAACP, Sacramento Area Congregations Together and other faith and community groups will attend the City Council meeting on Tuesday. They want the council to strengthen the Sacramento Community Police Commission, an advisory panel it created last year to recommend police reforms.
Owen said the commission needs more power to investigate police shootings and potentially set broader policies for transparency, including the release of video and review of data on traffic stops. The activist coalition plans to present information to the council about what similar commissions do in other cities.
“Right now, we consider (the commission) fake and phony,” Owen said.
The city manager oversees the Police Department, including hiring of the chief. But the council can set expectations for transparency and accountability, and require the department to report back.
Police Chief Sam Somers Jr., council members and Mayor-elect Darrell Steinberg have met with community groups in recent weeks, according to Owen and LEAD member Mark Harris.
Somers was unavailable for comment for this story. But other city leaders, including Mayor Kevin Johnson, said they are open to more oversight.
“In Sacramento, we shouldn’t rest until we build a Police Department that reflects the diversity of our city, is the best trained, most accountable and works side by side with the community,” Johnson said.
Councilman Larry Carr said it’s up to the council to “articulate to the city manager in an explicit and clear way exactly what results we’re looking for, and then also there are things we don’t want to see happen, and then to look at those on a frequency that matches our anxiety about those things,” he added. “If you don’t do that, you tend to lurch from one crisis to another, always behind. I’m pretty sure that’s where we are.”
Councilman Allen Warren, who represents the district where Mann was killed, said more oversight was “absolutely the direction we are going.”
Councilwoman Angelique Ashby, who spearheaded the creation of the police commission, said she viewed it as a “place to start,” and envisioned it changing as it matures.
The commission’s 11 members are appointed by the mayor and come from a variety of backgrounds, including law enforcement, and they often have different opinions about what should be required of the Police Department. A subcommittee of three commission members is pushing a recommendation that the city set up a website on which video and other information on officer-involved shootings would be posted in a timely manner. This recommendation will be debated at a commission meeting Monday.
Commission member Tim Davis, who heads the Sacramento Police Officers Association, said it’s too soon to decide if the commission needs more powers. He suggested the council hold off until the commission, less than a year old, makes its first report.
“It seems like you are shortchanging what was created to say after just a few months … we need a new commission,” Davis said. “It’s been given responsibilities by the City Council, and it’s just starting out.”
Sacramento Police Department spokesman Bryce Heinlein added that the department had done “a tremendous amount of outreach to make sure people understand” events in the Mann case, including holding community forums with Somers and police leaders.
The Mann family said the information it has received is too little and too slow.
“Accountability should have been happening a long time ago,” said Robert Mann, Joseph Mann’s brother.
The family of Joseph Mann has made two requests to view surveillance and police footage from his shooting, both of which the city has refused, according to attorney John Burris, who filed the civil rights suit and claim against the city.
Heinlein said the department was legally unable to release video in certain circumstances, such as during an ongoing investigation.
“We can’t just arbitrarily give out everything,” he said. “I wish everything was open and (the public) knew everything we did, but unfortunately we can’t do it that way. … That is the struggle you have when you are trying to remain professional, abiding by the laws, abiding by the rules.”
Davis, the police union leader, added that “ultimate transparency affects some people’s privacy rights … . If I get called to an emergency at your house because your family member is having a crisis … do you want that video to be public record for anybody to go and see?”
A Public Records Act request from The Sacramento Bee for video of the shooting was also denied, with the city citing an ongoing investigation.
Police were not wearing body cameras, but all Sacramento police patrol vehicles contain in-car cameras that likely filmed the event, based on the Sacramento Police Department’s protocol for using those cameras. Police also obtained footage from at least two private surveillance cameras near the scene and likely have audio of officers speaking before and after the shooting.
The Bee made an informal request for a copy of the city’s policy on the use of patrol car cameras, but was told to file a formal Public Records Act request. The city fulfilled that request with a four-page redacted version of March 2015 general orders establishing procedure and policy for in-car cameras.
Portions of the document explaining how the system is used are missing, including one of four automatic activation triggers for the cameras. Before the city released that document, City Attorney James Sanchez said policies are generally public but the city could withhold or redact parts of it if his office determined that releasing guidelines for camera use could endanger officers.
Failing to release the video or to have a clear, accessible policy for how police collect and use surveillance footage falls “very short of what the best practices are,” said Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties policy director for the ACLU of Northern California.
Owen, of the Law Enforcement Accountability Directive, said it was “totally inappropriate” for the city to require a PRA request before providing its policy on such matters.
“The public is entitled to know what your policies are,” he said. “If you’re not going to tell us what your rules of engagement are, that is totally outrageous.”
A Bee PRA request for police policies for engaging with the mentally ill is pending.