Crime - Sacto 911

Another Trayvon Martin? Sacramento protesters rage over Stephon Clark's death

Four days after police killed Stephon Clark in the backyard of his grandparents' home in south Sacramento, the city erupted with rage as protesters shut down traffic on Interstate 5 during Thursday's evening commute and blocked Kings fans from attending the game inside Golden 1 Center downtown.

More than 300 marchers took over City Hall in the afternoon, then moved on to the freeway before forming a human chain around the Kings arena. All but 2,000 of the seats inside the arena remained empty when the game tipped off, the fans locked outside. At about 7:40 p..m. the Kings issued a statement saying they wouldn't admit any more fans.

The protest was noisy but peaceful. A group of police in riot gear came briefly onto the Golden 1 Center plaza but then retreated across the street to St. Rose of Lima Park.

Protestors held up cell phones, chanting "Don't shoot. It's a cell phone" and "Hands up, don't shoot." Clark was unarmed and holding a white iPhone which police apparently mistook for a gun when they fired 20 rounds at him.

While some Kings fans said they sympathized with the protesters, others expressed anger that their plans to attend the game had been disrupted.

"Their rights don't supersede everyone else's," said Doug Hillblon of Elk Grove, as he waited with with his wife and a family friend outside the arena.

Out on 5th Street, five Kings fans leaving the area gave fist bumps to police officers and told them, "We support you."

The protests capped a day in which it became increasingly clear that Clark's death was attracting attention not drawn by previous police shootings in Sacramento. By Thursday, national media had arrived in Sacramento. The Rev. Al Sharpton was said to be on his way. Clark's family has hired prominent civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who also represented the families of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.

Like Martin and Brown, young black men shot to death in race-related incidents, Clark is quickly entering the national consciousness as a symbol of racial bias in American policing, a searing admonition that the Black Lives Matter movement that began in 2013 with the acquittal of Martin's killer, George Zimmerman, is a long way from done.

"He was crucified," said Les Simmons, a pastor and police reform advocate, of Clark. "He was sentenced, found guilty and sent to death all within a five minute period. ... He had no chance."

Thursday morning, Clark's fiancee and mother of his two infant sons, Salena Manni, and his older brother, Stevante Clark, met with members of the press at Simmons' church in the same working class neighborhood where Clark was killed.

Stevante Clark said he was angry and adamant that his brother be remembered.

"I want his name out there," he said. "He was goofy, he was funny, he was loving, he liked shoes. He was a playboy, he was smart, he was an athlete, he was charismatic. ... It's screwed up."

Both Clark and Manni said their initial thought was disbelief when they heard Stephon had been killed. "My reaction was, 'It's not real,'" said Clark.

Like other family members and many in the larger community, Clark had questions and doubts about the information police have released and their actions on Sunday night– when two officers chased Stephon Clark down the driveway of the home where he was staying on and off, and into the backyard before shooting him.

The entire encounter lasted less than 10 seconds and was prompted by a 911 call about a man allegedly breaking car windows nearby.

Police released two audio clips and three videos of the incident on Wednesday. The release of the videos is required by a Sacramento City ordinance passed in late 2016 after police shot Joseph Mann, a mentally ill black man armed with a knife. The department has 30 days now to release video in "critical incidents." But the city's first African-American police chief, Daniel Hahn, acted more swiftly than that, making the videos public after only three days.

Hahn has been on the job for nine months and has pushed the department toward greater transparency.

While many community activists lauded the quick release of the videos, their content raised questions and concerns – and calls for accountability.

"A person's car window is not more important than someone's life," said Sonia Lewis, a niece of Clark's step-grandfather and a member of Black Lives Matter Sacramento.

Lewis and others questioned whether the nature of the 911 call warranted the force that was ultimately used. Many thought it excessive.

In the wake of the Mann shooting, the city adopted a use-of-force policy meant to prioritize the "sanctity of life" and encourage the use of non-lethal weapons and de-escalation techniques.

Why those tactics and weapons weren't employed was a chief concern. On video, officers can be heard discussing using a non-lethal weapon after Clark has already been shot and is unresponsive to ensure he is no threat to them.

"Those measures were supposed to prevent this from happening and help justice be brought forward, and right now it seems like it's failing us," said Ryan McClinton, an activist with Sacramento Area Congregations Together. "What good is it if they are not having the discretionary foresight to enter a situation with (non-lethal weapons) in the first place? It's failing us."

Others questioned if police were certain that Clark even was the person the 911 caller reported. On Wednesday night, Hahn said he couldn't yet say for certain.

“Do I believe he was the one based on what we know now? I believe that, yeah, but can we factually say it yet? No," Hahn told The Sacramento Bee. "But when and if we can, we will put that out. ... Everything indicates he was, but you can’t say factually it was him yet. We don’t have those facts yet.”

Betty Williams, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, met with Hahn Thursday afternoon, seeking answers to that and other questions, including why officers muted their microphones near the end of the video.

"We didn't need the press release. ... We're asking him the tough questions," she said. "Maybe he needs to be the model of what accountability looks like. Maybe he needs to be the new definition, this is the new normal, starting with him. He actually has an opportunity, and that’s the way he needs to look at it. He has the opportunity to do it right."

Williams said Hahn said he would investigate why the officers' muted their microphones. .

A fuller picture of Stephon Clark also emerged Thursday through court records and interviews with family and friends, showing a man who was both troubled and loved.

Clark had a juvenile court record dating back to 2012, with offenses that include grand theft, robbery and receiving stolen property.

As an adult, he had been charged in four criminal cases since 2014. In 2014, records show, Clark was arrested and charged with felony armed robbery and assault and endangering the life of a child. Details of that case were unavailable Thursday, but court documents indicate that Clark pleaded no contest and spent a year on a sheriff’s department work project to satisfy his jail term.

In late 2015, Clark was charged with “pimping” after sheriff’s deputies stopped him and a woman while they were driving in a “high prostitution and crime area” in North Highlands. At the time, both Clark and the woman were on probation, records indicate. Clark pleaded no contest to the charge.

In 2016, Clark was charged with domestic violence “resulting in a traumatic condition” to the victim. The incident happened at a residence in Elk Grove. When police arrived, they found the woman “holding a bag of ice to her face,” according to a narrative by Elk Grove police.

She had suffered “bruising and swelling to her right eye,” it says, and complained of pain in her right elbow. The woman said Clark had punched her.

Clark’s most recent brush with the law occurred earlier this year, when he again was charged with domestic violence. Details on that case were sketchy on Thursday.

Despite the court records, family gave a different perspective. Manni said Clark was a good father. Stevante Clark called his brother the "warrior" of the family.

Others questioned if his criminal acts were relevant.

"Why would you include his criminal record?," said Williams. "What does that have to do with his death?"

By Thursday night, there was no resolution in how or why Clark was killed, but the potential for many months of controversy.

Policing expert Ed Obayashi said from the law enforcement perspective, the shooting was "reasonable" and likely would not result in any criminal charges against the officers, who have not yet been identified.

"If you want to attack, attack the process, the training," said Obayashi. "That’s the way these officers are trained. They did everything they were trained to do. ... You don’t want your brother or your loved one to second guess themselves in a situation where their lives are at stake."

Civil rights attorney Mark Reichel reviewed the videos for The Bee and said he also could not see evidence that would lead to criminal charges against the officers.

But, he added that there are disturbing aspects to parts of the video that require investigation, including a snippet where one officer appears to confirm after the shooting that Clark had obeyed their commands to show his hands.

"He came up, and then he kinda approached us hands out, and then fell down...," one officer says to a female police officer who has arrived on the scene.

"They told him one command: show us your hands," Reichel said. "So he is showing them his hands.

"Now, he's coming forward. He wasn’t told to stop, so if they say show us your hands and they back up and hide, what do you do to not get shot? Do you come forward showing us your hands? Or do you stay there or hit the ground? That's the problem. ... It could be unreasonable to shoot."

Crump, the lawyer who represented the family of Trayvon Martin, on Thursday called Clark's death "an all-too-common tragedy."

"It is yet another troubling example of a young, unarmed black man being shot by police under highly questionable circumstances," he continued. "From what we have seen so far, Sacramento law enforcement’s actions – both before and after the shooting – have raised more questions than provided answers. All of us who are committed to social justice are demanding full transparency and answers as to how these tragic events unfolded.”

For Lewis, Clark's step-grandfather's niece, Thursday felt too familiar. Her brother was best friends with Joseph Mann growing up, and that police killing felt personal.

Now it's her own family that is affected. While she didn't know Clark well, she grew up with him around. She wonders what would have happened if a stray bullet pieced the wall, killing her uncle, her step-aunt, or Stephon Clark's seven-year-old sister – all of whom were inside the house.

"It really brings it home," she said. "It's disturbing."

Sacramento Bee reporters Benjy Egel and Nashelly Chavez also contributed to this report.

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