Crime - Sacto 911

Family seeks murder charges, federal probe in Sacramento police shooting

The family of a mentally ill man shot by police 14 times after officers attempted to run him down with their vehicle will ask for a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the Sacramento Police Department, as well as push for murder charges against the two officers who fired the shots.

“This is murder and a reckless disregard for human life,” said attorney John Burris, who was to announce the effort at a news conference Monday morning.

Burris said the actions of officers as they attempted to run down Joseph Mann with their car during a frantic 35-second encounter on July 11 that ended with police shooting Mann dead “epitomized the lawlessness of these officers,” and rose to the level of at least second-degree murder.

City Attorney James Sanchez noted the district attorney was reviewing the case and “will advise of any criminal findings. We welcome appropriate review by any state or federal law enforcement authority.”

Burris said the Mann shooting was not the first incident in which one of the officers, John Tennis, has been accused of excessive force.

In addition to asking the federal government to examine the shooting and the actions leading up to it, Burris said he will request a review of the Police Department to determine if problems are systemic.

“There are policies and procedures in place that really need to be checked,” he said. “There are issues here about use of the car, how do you treat the mentally impaired, that it’s important that the DOJ … takes a look at.”

In the audio of a dashboard camera video released by police in the Mann shooting, one of the two officers said “f--- this guy,” as they approach the scene in their vehicle. Moments later, the driver – identified as Tennis in court papers Burris was to file Monday – said, “I’m going to hit him.”

“OK. Go for it. Go for it,” his partner, Officer Randy Lozoya, responded.

In the next audible clip, an officer said, “We’ll get him. We’ll get him.” They stopped the car and then chased Mann on foot.

Seconds later, they fired 18 shots at Mann, hitting him with 14, according to police Chief Sam Somers Jr.

“Officer John Tennis has a long history of disturbing behavior while employed for Sacramento Police Department, going as far back at 1997, when he killed a man with his bare hands,” Burris wrote in a copy of his letter to the Department of Justice and obtained by The Sacramento Bee.

Burris said he is referring to an incident in which a 35-year-old African American man, Albert Thiel, died after a violent struggle with police in which Tennis placed him in a chokehold that resulted in his death.

During Thiel’s encounter with police, Tennis and other officers pursued Thiel in a car through Del Paso Heights, according to Bee archives. The stories at the time did not identify the officer, but sources familiar with the case have confirmed it was Tennis.

According to police accounts at the time, Thiel and a female passenger were driving what officers identified as a stolen car. Thiel eventually fled the car and was chased by officers before being taken down by several officers and a police dog.

He was handcuffed and placed in the back of a patrol car. When paramedics arrived to treat him for a dog bite, they found him unresponsive.

The coroner later ruled his death a homicide, saying he was killed by pressure or a blow to his throat that cut off his airway. The coroner said he found alcohol and cocaine in Thiel’s system.

The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department investigated and concluded that the officer acted with lawful intent, but the county’s Human Rights/Fair Housing Commission asked the FBI to conduct a separate investigation.

The county District Attorney’s Office declined to bring charges in the case and called Thiel’s death “an unfortunate accident.”

Tennis was also involved in a claim against the city involving Lovell Sturgis Brown. In that incident, Tennis was accused of false arrest or imprisonment, Sanchez told The Bee last week. The claim resulted from Tennis stopping Brown for questioning in an area known for narcotics sales. Sanchez said a “scuffle ensued” and the suspect “received some scrapes and bruises.”

Brown filed a lawsuit in 2000 and the city settled it for $10,000, Sanchez said.

Sanchez said records for the Thiel incident were in storage and not immediately available.

City officials and community leaders pushed hard in recent weeks for the Police Department to release footage of the Mann incident, but the department resisted until The Bee obtained surveillance footage of the shooting from a private citizen. After that video was made public, the department quickly called a news conference to release the dash-cam footage and other materials.

However, Somers failed to point out the officers’ attempt to run Mann over before shooting him. Audio of that portion of the incident was first reported by the Sacramento News and Review. The Bee posted enhanced audio of the exchange between Tennis and Lozoya on Friday.

Some City Council members questioned why the department did not clearly reveal the officers’ exchange, even in a private briefing to council members after the news conference on Sept. 20.

Four council members reached by The Bee on Sunday confirmed that they were first made aware of the recorded audio conversation on Friday after it was widely circulated online.

Councilman Allen Warren said it was “extremely alarming” that the audio had not been brought to the council’s attention earlier by city officials.

“I think there are going to be a number of questions asked to our senior government employees, and out of that hopefully more clarity will be gathered,” Warren said.

The Mann incident took place July 11, when police were called to an apartment building on a residential street off Del Paso Boulevard.

Residents at a nearby apartment complex had reported that Mann was acting erratically. The first officers arrived about five minutes before Tennis and Lozoya shot Mann.

Dispatchers told officers that Mann was seen with a knife and a gun. Police have never reported finding a gun but did search the area.

In dash-cam footage from the first patrol car to arrive, Mann told officers he did not have a gun. Mann did not comply with officers’ commands to drop his knife and continued to move away from those officers, who pursued him at a slow speed.

Mann made his way to Del Paso Boulevard. He yelled threats at police and threw a thermos at their car as he went. Police repeatedly ordered him to drop the knife with a 4-inch blade, but he did not drop it.

Despite Mann’s actions, the first officers to respond attempted to de-escalate the situation by remaining in their car and following Mann slowly. In audio from the dash-cam in that car, an officer can be heard saying, “I’m not going to force it.”

Measurements taken by The Bee based on Tennis and Lozoya’s position in the video put them about 27 feet from Mann when they began firing.

Somers later said a toxicology report found methamphetamine in Mann’s system.

The District Attorney’s Office said it had received more than 50 multimedia disks containing photographs, diagrams, transcripts and other evidence and was still investigating.

“We are in the process of our review and continue to balance our desire to complete this investigation in a timely manner with the overarching need to ensure any conclusions we reach are the result of a thorough and methodical evaluation of the facts and the law,” said district attorney’s spokeswoman Shelly Orio in a statement.

Anita Chabria: 916-321-1049, @chabriaa

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