Police response to a viral video of a Sacramento officer repeatedly punching a jaywalker last week unleashed an unexpected reaction in the Del Paso Heights community where the incident took place: hope.
Residents said quick and decisive action by the department and city leaders to release in-car camera footage and suspend the patrolman pending investigation after the April 10 incident is a “positive” and “significant” sign of the transparency they have called for since the shooting of a mentally ill black man, Joseph Mann, by two officers in the same police district last July.
The Mann incident, which came to light after The Sacramento Bee released video obtained from a private citizen, sparked community protest and the passage of police transparency and accountability measures by the City Council in November, including an ordinance requiring the release of video in critical incidents.
Adrian Perez, a community activist in North Sacramento and founder of the Sacramento Latino Community Roundtable, said the contrast between the response to the Mann incident and the Nandi Cain encounter has given him and others “hope” that a part of the city with long-running mistrust of police might be entering a new era.
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“Over half of the community leaders in this area are quite frankly supportive of the actions that were taken and appreciate the fact that our local (police) captain as well as the police chief and the mayor … all took immediate action. It was lightning fast, it was so positive,” said Perez. “Seeing something like this improves the trust in law enforcement. We’ve never seen that before and that is exciting.”
The incident happened last Monday when Cain, 24, was stopped by an officer around 5 p.m. after Cain allegedly crossed Grand Avenue illegally while walking home from work. After a verbal exchange, the officer, who has not been identified by the department, knocked Cain down and punched him about 18 times before arresting him.
The incident was caught on video by another local resident, Naomi Montaie, and posted to Facebook. It immediately went viral within the tight-knit neighborhood. Within an hour of the posting, concerned residents began calling neighborhood leaders like Perez, who in turn reached out to city and police leaders.
Mervin Brookins, who runs the youth sports leagues in North Sacramento, said he called the city’s Office of Public Safety Accountability after being alerted to the incident and immediately received assurances it would be looked at.
Other community leaders including radio talk show host Jay King and Twin Rivers Unified school board trustee Ramona Landeros said they called and texted other officials, including Mayor Darrell Steinberg and the local police captain for the area, Pamela Seyffert – both of whom responded with similar assurances.
Police had already flagged the encounter, according to a press release put out by the department. After an on-site review, a supervising officer quickly reported “that there were significant policy concerns,” police said.
Charges against Cain were dropped, and an officer was sent to the county jail to facilitate Cain’s release, police said.
Steinberg, City Manager Howard Chan, and members of the City Council and the Police Department took the unprecedented step of meeting with community leaders to brief them on the incident on Tuesday, and put out a press release detailing the encounter in the early hours that morning.
Brookins said that police leaders, including deputy police Chief Mike Bray and Seyffert, “surprised” him by expressing concerns over the officer’s actions during the Tuesday meeting.
“Almost instantly it was, ‘You know what? This isn’t right and we are going to deal with it accordingly,’ ” said Brookins. “In my lifetime, it’s unheard of for (police) to break with an officer and almost immediately … they weren’t afraid to say it.”
Bray also spoke at the weekly City Council meeting, where he said the videos “are disturbing to watch and concerning to me as a Sacramento police officer.”
Interim police Chief Brian Louie was off last week, leaving Bray in charge of the department.
By Tuesday evening – about 24 hours after the incident – police had released most of the available video and put the officer on paid administrative leave pending both criminal and internal investigations.
“This is the way we must operate because not only does it build trust with the community, I am absolutely convinced it is essential to the success of our police department and the success of our individual officers,” said Steinberg.
Chan agreed that the quick response should be “the new normal” but said that the department had a strong track record of policing its own officers.
The change wasn’t in policy, he said, but in the public’s access to procedure.
“This week’s actions to release video and communicate our investigative intentions may appear unprecedented, but as a whole they are not,” said Chan. “The department has, for decades, maintained a robust and proactive investigations process. The women and men of the Sacramento Police Department have never been afraid to hold one another accountable or review their actions.”
Police union president Tim Davis cautioned that such quick action to publicly censure officers could have negative impacts. He warned that officers in Sacramento could be reluctant to confront suspects for fear of the consequences. Some officers might leave for other police departments they perceive as more supportive.
“This is a new thing, there are some good things about it and some things that will be difficult,” said Davis. “You paint this picture where (the public) are only seeing the negative … If the belief is that when you contact somebody and it goes bad, you get thrown to the wolves, people are not going to do proactive work.”
Mike Durant, president of the Peace Officers Research Association of California, also criticized Steinberg and the decision to release the video before the investigation of the officer concludes. The association represents more than 69,000 police officers in the state.
“Those type of things taint an investigation and taint the public’s view,” Durant said.
Durant, a detective with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office, said most viewers only watch a snippet of the video before making up their minds about the officer’s conduct.
“I listened to every word and I thought, ‘OK, why in the world is this guy being condemned?’ ” Durant said of the officer. “Ultimately we need to have the ability to do a thorough investigation so that not only the citizens are protected but so is the integrity of the officer.”
Landeros, King and others said that the transparency was a critical step to building trust and they believed it would not have happened without the bystander video and the community pressure it produced.
Brookins also cautioned that the goodwill the department earned with its response is still tempered by what many see as pervasive underlying problems with how the neighborhood is policed.
“They got it right this time but that doesn’t mean that everything is hunky-dory,” said Brookins.
Landeros and Perez said that stops for minor infractions like jaywalking are often viewed as police harassment. A Bee investigation last week found residents of North Sacramento and Del Paso Heights received nearly triple the number of jaywalking citations handed out in the entire rest of the city in 2016.
Black people received 111 of those citations, nearly 50 percent, but account for about 15 percent of the area’s residents.
Still, Landeros, Perez, Brookins and others said that the response to the Cain incident is meaningful.
“The important takeaway is that we had a good response and we hope to continue that good relationship we are building with the department,” said Landeros. “This is a case where people need to look at this and say this is what we want to move towards.”
Bee reporter Taryn Luna contributed to this report.