Responding to two fatal officer-involved shootings this year that have drawn questions from community leaders, the Sacramento City Council on Tuesday will consider strengthening civilian oversight of the Police Department and providing greater public access to incident video.
The changes are designed to bolster public confidence in the Police Department and ensure that officers are following procedures. The reform package comes as law enforcement nationwide faces growing scrutiny over the use of deadly force, particularly against African American men.
The July death of Joseph Mann drew national attention after dashcam footage showed two officers attempting to run him over with their cruiser before shooting him dead in North Sacramento. Mann had been acting erratically and waving a knife, witnesses reported.
In that case, police officials declined to provide footage until The Sacramento Bee obtained a surveillance video of Mann’s death from a private citizen. Mann’s family had sought the police video in the previous months and said the department had refused to answer questions about the shooting. The relatives filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city, saying Mann was victim of excessive force, and community leaders said officers failed to adequately respond to a mentally ill individual.
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Under the council’s plan, video in police shootings would be released to the public unless the department could show that doing so would impede an investigation, violate state law or run afoul of police union contracts, according to City Council staff.
The reforms would also create a civilian oversight commission with its own investigator to review allegations of police misconduct, including shootings and deaths of suspects while in custody. The panel would launch investigations based on community complaints.
Currently, the Police Department conducts its own investigations of shootings by officers and in-custody deaths. The Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office also reviews such shootings for potential criminal charges.
The 11-member commission would not be able to impose or recommend discipline of officers, nor could it subpoena witnesses. Activists have called for such powers, but state law precludes those abilities.
The eight council members would each appoint one commissioner, and the mayor would appoint three, based on a copy of the proposal reviewed by The Bee. The commissioners would receive training on police policy, legalities of investigation and police union rules.
The commission is modeled after Berkeley’s. The new board would revamp the Sacramento Community Police Commission, which activists have said lacks real oversight power. Les Simmons, the former chair of that commission, resigned in protest in September.
Councilman Larry Carr, who has pushed to change how officers use deadly force, said Berkeley is “something to emulate” because the city has already installed a strong model that works within the confines of state law.
The council will also consider strengthening the Office of Public Safety Accountability, which now conducts limited investigations of police misconduct and reviews police shootings for violations of department policy.
It’s staffed by a single person who reports to the city manager. The office has been criticized by community leaders for not having enough resources or autonomy to successfully provide oversight. Some suggest that it has a conflict of interest because it answers to the same person that oversees the Police Department.
Under the new proposal, the office would report directly to the City Council and mayor, giving it independence akin to the city auditor. It would have its own budget, and the investigator and staff for the commission would become part of the Office of Public Safety Accountability.
“It would give the office a lot more independence,” said Councilman Allen Warren, who was not involved in crafting the plan. It “needs to be free of any politics. (It) needs to report back to us.”
Some law enforcement activists questioned if the proposed reforms go too far.
Jake Shockley, founder of Back the Badge Sacramento, said that police across the country have to “walk on eggshells,” and law enforcement agencies already have multiple layers of oversight.
“Police departments have the proper investigative tools to investigate on their own,” Shockley said. “Then we have outside sources like the DA and the Department of Justice if needed ... Having a community member doing their own investigation, I just don’t think it’s a good idea.”
Some community activists said they oppose the reform proposal because it provides too little, too quick.
“It’s business as usual, and the city doesn’t hear us,” said Mark Harris, an attorney for the family of Dazion Flenaugh, who was shot and killed by police in April in another high-profile incident.
Harris said he agreed with the recommendations for the Office of Public Safety Accountability, but opposed the plan for the commission and other reforms for not providing enough civilian power.
He said his police-reform group, Law Enforcement Accountability Directive, would like the council to take more time to consider other options before moving forward and wait until after Mayor-elect Darrell Steinberg takes office in December.
“We don’t know enough yet to know if what (the city) is proposing will have unintended consequences that will set us back ... I want all the best practices we can get our hands on to come before the council. I want to see them have the gold standard on this.”
The city plans to hold community forums in coming weeks, and the City Council plans to vote on the package Nov. 29.