‘There are other things they could have done’
On the one-year anniversary of the day their father was shot and killed by two Sacramento sheriff’s deputies, sisters Bobbi Attaway and Sierra Rivera returned to the suburban street where he died, and where they thought they could still see traces of his blood staining the asphalt.
Official reports on the shooting last September had left the teenagers with questions they hoped to answer by standing in the place where Jesse Attaway’s life ended, at the same time he was shot. As the low fall sun dissolved the night, they debated what officers could have and should have seen in that gray hour, and why deputies felt threatened enough to fire about 20 rounds at a father the girls described as funny and non-confrontational.
How, they wondered, could the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office say in its review of the incident that Attaway was smirking at officers, when officers also said it was dark enough that they couldn’t distinguish that the object he held in his hands was a wallet, not a gun?
How could Attaway, 41, have methamphetamine in his system, as a toxicology report found, when his daughters never knew he did drugs?
Why wouldn’t the Sheriff, Scott Jones, let them see the dashcam video?
Daylight brought no answers.
“Every single bit of information I’ve heard from the police has contradicted itself,” said Rivera, 19, sitting at a nearby Starbucks a few weeks later. “First they said they put the spotlight on him. Then they said it was pitch black. Then they said there were street lights. Then they said they saw his face? They saw him smirk? How? You can see him smile or smirk at you in a sarcastic way …. But you can’t see what’s in his hand?”
Her little sister, Bobbi, 17, nervously chain-smoked while she tried to explain why she was speaking publicly about her father’s death months after it happened, and why the sisters and their mother are in the process of filing a lawsuit against the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department to force more disclosure. Well-spoken and with a composed maturity greater than her years – she had a baby, Dominick, at 15 and is raising him while completing her GED – Bobbi rubbed her hand across her throat when asked about her dad, like something was physically stopping her words.
“I don’t know why, the words won’t come out. I know what I’m saying in my head,” she said. “It’s just all so mixed up. It’s messed up that this family and his daughters are being told all these lies, or could be not lies, and giving us a whole different perspective on our father when we loved him our whole life. ... I want to know the truth. I want to know the full story.”
Bobbi Attaway and Rivera have hired local civil rights attorney Stewart Katz to push the sheriff’s office for more information about Attaway’s shooting, and have filed a claim with the county – a required precursor to a lawsuit.
The young women would also like to see similar transparency and accountability reforms in the Sheriff’s Department as those adopted by Sacramento police this year, including wider release of critical incident videos, body cameras for officers and increased training and availability of non-lethal weapons.
“I don’t want to be scared of cops,” said Attaway. “I am scared of them not being trained enough to know what to do.”
The need for change at the Sheriff’s Department was backed by a report on the Attaway shooting by Rick Braziel, the inspector general for Sacramento County and the former police chief in the city of Sacramento who reviews critical incidents. Braziel, like the district attorney, found that the shooting was legally justified and that officers reasonably felt their lives were in danger.
But he also reiterated in his report a litany of changes and reforms he’s been advocating since taking on the inspector general role in 2015 to provide greater transparency and accountability at the department, which has about 1,600 sworn employees and patrols just under 1,000 square miles. The department also runs the Sacramento Main Jail and the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Facility, overseeing about 3,700 inmates. Between corrections and patrol, it is one of the top 10 largest sheriff’s departments in the country.
Yet it trails many police departments when it comes to tracking and monitoring – and explaining – use of force by its deputies, said Braziel.
“They’ve not overly transparent … they are average,” said Braziel. “They are definitely not the most progressive, but they are also not the worst.”
Katz has won two civil rights suits against Sheriff Scott Jones’ department in as many years, including a September judgment for $6.5 million for the family of a schizophrenic man shot by a deputy. He has a stronger view than Braziel.
“You’ve got a situation where the Police Department is moving in one direction, and the Sheriff’s Department is moving in another,” Katz said. “The dichotomy has never been so dramatic. It’s hard to fully fathom.”
Cameras turned off
Among Braziel’s suggestions are updates to general orders that govern how deputies are expected to behave, some of which haven’t been revised in years.
He believes those policies should be examined at least every three years and should always be made available to the public without requiring a Public Records Act request, which is currently the case. The Bee filed a request for the department’s General Orders on Nov. 2. The Sheriff’s Department said it was unable to produce them in the required 10-day period and it expects to deliver the request by Nov. 22.
Braziel said he thinks the department should more comprehensively examine how and when its deputies use any kind of force. Currently, he said, the department doesn’t track when officers use equipment like batons or get into physical altercations, among other gaps in reporting.
Sheriff’s Department spokesman Sgt. Shaun Hampton said the department tracks “every discharge of a weapon” including handguns, shotguns, 40mm less lethal guns, rifles and Tasers and is “actively looking” at software that would track all types of use of force. He said the department could possibly purchase it within a year.
But that incomplete approach makes it hard to make data-driven decisions about what tactics and equipment are effective and which ones may pose a danger to officers and the public, and if certain officers rely on force more than others, Braziel said.
As part of that closer monitoring, Braziel would also like to see the department conduct quicker and more in-depth reviews in cases like Attaway, instead of bundling all officer-involved shootings and critical incidents into quarterly reports after an initial briefing 48 hours after the event.
Braziel’s biggest change may be a push to require officers to record their actions on video and audio. Currently, the department doesn’t have any body-worn cameras, although Hampton said it is testing camera equipment and has an internal committee to examine the issue. There are no community members on that committee, he said.
The department does own body-worn microphones, but Braziel said they are seldom turned on by deputies despite a policy that requires they be on and recording during most traffic stops and a broad list of other interactions with the public.
“They just don’t turn them on at all,” said Braziel. “It’s got to be cultural because it’s across the board … Every one of the reports I’ve written has said they have to wear their mics and turn them on.”
Jesse Attaway’s fatal run-in with law enforcement, said Braziel, is an example of how that audio and video is crucial to understanding events, and how transparency builds trust. As inspector general, he has been able to review those materials.
There is no direct audio from either officer, just what was captured by the in-car system, he said. Braziel doesn’t know if the two officers’ personal recording equipment was broken, missing or not turned on.
But there is car video, and Braziel believes if it were released, it would answer a lot of questions.
“I wish I could show you,” he said.
The department declined a Public Records Act request for audio and video of the Attaway incident, citing government code that exempts disclosure of certain records, including those where “the public interest served by not disclosing the record clearly outweighs the public interest served by disclosure.”
The sheriff declined to comment on his policy on video release.
A black wallet
Jesse Attaway’s fatal encounter with law enforcement began in the predawn hours on Sept. 23 of last year when a homeowner in a modest subdivision about a half-mile from where Attaway was shot awoke to his dogs barking in the front room. Attaway had allegedly earlier stolen a car in Rocklin and driven to this area of Fair Oaks. When the homeowner went to see what was happening, he found Attaway had taken milk out of his refrigerator and was drinking it from the carton.
The man locked up his dogs so they wouldn’t hurt Attaway and for the next few minutes, told him he had to leave. Attaway refused and asked him for his car keys, but eventually did go and headed into the backyard of the neighbor’s house.
There, Attaway found an open sliding glass door. The woman who lived in the house tried to shut the door before he could enter, but Attaway attempted to force it open, telling her, “Don’t be scared.”
The woman called for her husband, who chased Attaway through the backyard with a baseball bat.
Attaway made it over a fence into the backyard of a home one street over, and from there apparently crossed Hazel Avenue into another neighborhood where sheriff’s Deputies Andrew Carter and Bao Mai noticed him walking.
Carter and Mai approached Attaway in their patrol SUV and turned the headlights and side spotlight on him, according to the inspector general’s report.
Attaway appeared to pull something from his back pocket and toward his chest, holding it there with his right hand, the report said, out of the deputies’ sight.
Mai told Attaway, “Hey, come here, come, here.” but Attaway continued down a side street, Mohawk Way, where he allegedly turned and began “bouncing backwards,” with his arms up and extended, something in his hand.
The deputies exited their vehicle, and Carter told Attaway, “Let me see your hands,” the report said. Both deputies yelled commands at Attaway, but he began “shuffling and skipping” away, appearing to the deputies to be concealing an item in his right hand.
Deputies told the investigators that Attaway then stopped, crouched slightly and “raised both arms into a shooting position,” while yelling “Ahh” and taking “two shuffling steps towards the deputies,” bringing him within about 50 feet of the officers.
Carter yelled that Attaway was “coming at me,” according to the report. Attaway then ducked “his head and flinches while he continues pointing an object at deputies as if he was pointing a handgun.”
Attaway, “though appearing to have been shot,” again raised both arms with an object in his hands. The deputies continued to fire their weapons. Attaway fell onto the street. He pushed himself up and deputies said he again pointed his right hand at them and got into a kneeling position, according to the inspector general’s report.
Deputies fired again, stopping as Attaway fell forward. The coroner later found Attaway had been shot at least four times: through the front of the head, right to left, with a downward trajectory of the bullet; through the bowels and into his vertebrae; in his left flank and through his back; and in his left foot.
Attaway had amphetamine and methamphetamine in his system, a toxicology report found, and a small bag with 0.16 grams of meth in the front coin pocket of his pants.
The dark object, found a few feet away, was Attaway’s black wallet.
“He pulled it out and was pointing it at them like a gun. You look at it going, ‘Why is he doing that,’ and we are never going to know why,” said Braziel, who thinks the officers had cause to fire.
Bobbi Attaway and her sister would like some of that certainty.
Attaway was living with Sierra and her then-boyfriend when he was killed, she said. She thinks she would have known if he were using drugs, but said she never saw signs of it. Jesse Attaway worked in construction, pouring concrete, she said. At night, he’d be too tired to take off his own shoes.
“He worked so hard every day he would come home and go to sleep,” said Bobbi Attaway. The week prior to the shooting, he’d come to Bobbi’s house for cake and ice cream to celebrate Dominick’s first birthday, giving the boy a toy guitar and a baseball glove. It was the last time Bobbi saw him.
“He was totally fine,” she said. It makes it harder to understand their father’s strange actions only a few days later, a series of events both girls find incomprehensible in the man they knew. It makes them doubt they have a complete story.
Even if their father held his wallet out like a gun, both wonder, could officers have responded differently? Could they have let him walk away or used non-lethal weapons?
Deputies currently have the choice of carrying a Taser but aren’t required to, said Hampton. The same is true of less-lethal ammunition options. The department is in the process of repurposing some shotguns to fire beanbags, said Braziel.
The frustration of being shut out of information that could answer their questions and provide clarity is what is pushing the Attaway sisters to speak now, they said. Maybe some of the answers will hurt, they said, but maybe getting them can make it easier for the next family in their position.
“Even if I fail I’m going to try. I don’t want to go unheard,” Bobbi Attaway said. “I know it’s going to be hard. But from what I went through, losing that, I will go through whatever I have to do just so for people to know he wasn’t the bad man that they are putting him out to be. He did not deserve to be shot. … it was unnecessary and my son doesn’t get to grow up with a grandpa and I don’t get to grow up with a dad.”