The Sacramento Police Department took steps Monday to fire an officer who fatally shot an armed, mentally ill black man last July in North Sacramento, following a yearlong investigation into the controversial incident.
The department has finished preliminary paperwork for the termination of Officer John Tennis, according to four sources familiar with the action but not authorized to speak publicly.
It is unclear if the move is directly tied to the shooting. Tennis, a 26-year member of the force, fired eight of the 18 shots aimed at Joseph Mann, 50, who was armed with a knife with a 3.5-inch blade and acting erratically when police first encountered him in a residential neighborhood near Del Paso Boulevard.
Both the police department and City Attorney James Sanchez declined to comment on what they described as a personnel matter.
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The other officer involved in the fatal shooting, Randy Lozoya, retired on April 1, according to department spokesman Sgt. Bryce Heinlein. It is unclear if Lozoya faced discipline over the shooting since police personnel and disciplinary records are confidential under state law.
“I applaud the department and the city of Sacramento for taking the proper action,” said Robert Mann, Joseph Mann’s brother. The Mann family has expressed outrage over the shooting and filed two lawsuits. The city has settled one suit filed by Mann’s father for $719,500.
Mann said Monday’s action made him feel hopeful by “showing that (police) want to be transparent, showing that they want to have some accountability. It’s just a very good thing for Sacramento.”
The move to fire Tennis may have resulted from the department’s internal affairs investigation into the Mann shooting, sources said. Department spokesman Sgt. Matt McPhail said that investigation is ongoing.
Internal affairs is investigating if Tennis and Lozoya violated department policies and procedures or training standards. A separate, public report by the city’s Office of Public Safety Accountability that critiques the internal affairs findings is expected in the coming weeks.
The police chief and city manager must approve letters of intent to fire police officers prior to the city sending them, sources said.
A letter of intent must be issued within a year of the event or the city’s knowledge of it occurring. The Mann shooting took place on July 11, 2016.
A call to Tennis’ lawyer Monday was not returned. The police officers’ union also did not respond.
Shortly after the shooting, Tennis was taken off patrol and moved to modified duty. He was switched to paid administrative leave on May 25 pending the outcome of the investigation, the department said this month. Tennis will remain on paid leave until a final termination letter is issued and by law will retain his pension if terminated.
Shelley Banks, the city’s labor relations manager, said the first step in firing city civil servants, including an officer, is to give the employee a letter of intent after an investigation finds termination is warranted. The city holds a termination hearing within five days. Banks said in complicated cases, that hearing is often delayed to allow the hearing officer time to research the case.
The hearing officer’s recommendation is not binding, and the department can move forward with termination regardless. The terminated officer has the right to appeal to an arbitrator, but the final decision is ultimately made by the city’s Civil Service Board.
In all, the process can take more than a year to complete, Banks said.
Tennis has been a patrol officer for most of his career, most recently in the north city neighborhoods around Del Paso Boulevard. He has also faced controversy in the past.
In 1997, Tennis was involved in a car chase that ended in the death of Albert Glenn Thiel after Tennis placed him in a controversial neck restraint that some departments at the time classified as lethal force.
The coroner later ruled Thiel’s death a homicide, saying he was killed by pressure or a blow to his throat that cut off his airway, but said it could not be confirmed that Tennis’ hold was the cause. The coroner also cited cocaine and alcohol in Thiel’s system as possible contributing factors. The Sacramento County District Attorney declined to bring charges in the case and labeled it “an unfortunate accident.”
Thiel’s son, A.J. Thiel, said Monday that he still seeks closure for his father’s death and has questions he would like to ask Tennis about the incident.
Tennis also was the subject of a claim against the city by Lovell Sturgis Brown in 2000 for false arrest or imprisonment. The city settled that claim for $10,000, the city attorney said previously.
In 2013, Tennis approached the department to ask for help with an alcohol problem, according to a letter he wrote to a superior contained in court records. Tennis detailed his excessive drinking after being served a restraining order by his ex-wife.
The department conducted an internal affairs investigation and waived a 40-hour suspension in favor of allowing Tennis to get in patient treatment at Mountain Vista Farm in Glen Ellen and participate in ongoing Alcoholics Anonymous meetings when he returned to duty, according to documentation contained in court records. Tennis participated in those meetings until at least April 2015, according to court records.
On the morning of July 11, police received two 911 calls about a man behaving strangely in front of an apartment building. A female caller said Mann had a knife, but a male caller reported seeing a gun. Interviewed later by The Bee, the caller said he was uncertain if he had seen a gun.
The first officers to respond followed Mann in their patrol car from a distance while attempting to speak with him over their loud speaker. Mann refused to comply with their orders to stop and put down his knife, and continued through the neighborhood and onto the commercial corridor of Del Paso Boulevard. Later, the coroner determined he had methamphetamine and amphetamine in his system.
More officers arrived and continued to monitor Mann, but Mann continued down the four-lane road, moving away from officers.
Tennis and Lozoya responded to the scene minutes later. The duo attempted to hit Mann two times with their car when they first encountered him, based on dashcam footage released by the city. “I’m going to hit him,” Tennis said.
“OK. Go for it. Go for it,” responded Lozoya.
The officers missed Mann with their vehicle, backed up, turned and then drove toward him again, based on the video. They then pursued him on foot. Within a minute of arriving at the scene, the two officers had killed Mann in a hail of bullets.
The incident quickly became a flashpoint for local activism around police conduct and how minority communities are policed. Four months later, the Sacramento City Council passed a series of police requirements, including the release of video in officer-involved shootings and some other incidents within 30 days of an encounter, and the creation of a more powerful civilian oversight commission currently in the process of forming.
The council also voted to put body cameras on all patrol officers. Officers began wearing those cameras earlier this year, and all patrol members are expected to have them by fall. But officers still retain some discretion about when to turn the cameras on and off.
Community advocates remain concerned about what they see as larger systemic issues within the department. Recent Sacramento Bee investigations found that black pedestrians are stopped more frequently for jaywalking, and that black drivers are stopped more frequently as well.
Robert Mann and his four siblings filed a new lawsuit in June against the city. Mann said he plans to continue with that suit to push for further police reforms, including better interventions with those experiencing mental illness. Joseph Mann had been treated in two local mental health facilities and struggled with substance abuse.
“We’re pursuing it so that in the future other family members don’t have to go through this horrific ordeal,” said Robert Mann. “We can be a fair city. We can be a city where all ethnicities and diversity groups can live and play and work together.”