Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones leaped to the defense of his deputies Monday after Stephon Clark activists accused one of them of hit-and-run over the weekend.
Jones held an unusual afternoon press conference at his office showing dash-cam videos of the incident in which a deputy’s SUV struck a protester on Florin Road on Saturday night as he drove away from a knot of shouting, sign-carrying protesters that surrounded his vehicle.
The incident, which sent 61-year-old protester Wanda Cleveland to the hospital with bruises, was a flashpoint during an hours-long protest outside the sheriff's south area substation.
The protest, attended by several hundred people, criticized the sheriff department's role in the March 18 shooting death of Clark, a 22-year-old Meadowview resident.
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The California Highway Patrol, which handles traffic enforcement on county streets, has launched a formal investigation of Saturday night’s crash, which took place just before 8:45 p.m.
Jones initially said during the press conference he believes the officer likely did not know he had hit Cleveland. She can be seen in the dash cam in front of the officer’s vehicle as she is hit and tossed to the right, prompting shouts from bystanders.
"There is a high likelihood that he didn’t even know that he collided with that protester,” Jones said.
The sheriff also suggested that his deputy may have been focused on the "threat" of protesters on his left side.
Minutes later, Jones backtracked, saying he had not spoken with the deputy and was unaware of any statements the driver may have made about the incident. “I honestly have no idea,” he said to a reporter’s question about whether the deputy knew he had hit Cleveland.
The sheriff made a point of blaming "professional protesters" and outside agitators who he said infiltrated the protest to inflame the event. But he said his deputies and protest leaders, who were in communication with each other during the event, did a good job of maintaining calm.
No arrests were made, despite numerous moments of tense standoffs between lines of riot-equipped officers and shouting demonstrators.
The crash was “an unfortunate event that punctuated an otherwise fantastic evening," the sheriff said, explaining that he meant no officers were hurt and no protesters were hurt other than Cleveland.
Jones' comments were immediately challenged as irresponsible speculation by attorneys Claire White and Mark Reichel, who said they are representing Cleveland.
"It is not possible that the officer did not see her," Reichel said in a statement. "It appears from all evidence that he hit her intentionally. He drove away from an injured woman intentionally."
Reichel said protesters were being allowed to march in the street when Cleveland was struck.
Cleveland is a longtime Sacramento activist who has participated in City Council meetings and feeds the homeless, White said. Jones’ comments about paid agitators speaks, she said, “to this right-wing, Trump-fed trope that these protesters aren’t our grandmothers, our teachers, our children.”
Jones showed snippets of dash camera videos from two sheriff's vehicles at the press conference and offered a narrative:
The two deputies were headed to the sheriff substation to process evidence after an unrelated arrest, and they were not part of the contingent of sheriff and CHP officers dealing with the protesters, he said.
The deputies were not listening to the radio channels that law enforcement involved in the protest control units were using, and they may have been surprised when they found themselves caught up in the crowd, Jones said.
The videos show the sheriff's vehicles stopping as protesters surrounded them, some stopping in front of the vehicles to shout obscenities and make hand gestures. Jones noted thumping sounds that he said were from protesters kicking or hitting the vehicles.
The sheriff showed several photographs of dents on patrol vehicles. The driver of the lead vehicle told the protesters on loudspeaker five times to get out of his way, at one point saying, “Get away from my car, dude!”
When the crowds cleared, he drove away. The second deputy followed, hitting Cleveland just as he took off.
The noise of a window shattering, which is audible on the video, came when someone struck the rear window of the vehicle after Cleveland was hit, Jones said.
Although he played the videos twice at his office, Jones refused to release the video files publicly, contending they were investigative files, not public records. He acknowledged that other agencies consider police videos to be public records.
Sacramento police, notably, released videos of the March 18 Clark shooting three days after it took place.
Clark was killed by two Sacramento police officers responding to reports of someone breaking car windows. Sheriff's deputies in a helicopter overhead guided the officers to Clark, which is why protesters said they held their demonstration outside the sheriff's south area substation.
Cleveland was transported to Kaiser Permanente South Sacramento Medical Center and treated for bruises on her arm and the back of her head.
Speaking at the hospital, Cleveland said that when the first vehicle started to clear out, she started to walk toward the curb because her arthritis was making her knees weak. The second vehicle driver abruptly accelerated and hit her in the knee, sending her into the air.
"He never even stopped. It was a hit-and-run. If I did that, I’d be charged," Cleveland said at the hospital. "It's disregard for human life."
California Highway Patrol officials on Monday said they are investigating the incident and asking for witnesses to help, including people with video or photos of the crash. The CHP said its officers did not go to the crash scene immediately, although they were in the area, because they feared inflaming the situation.
"Due to the large number of demonstrators at the scene, the potential volatility of the situation, and in the interest of the safety of the demonstrators and responding officers, the CHP was unable to access the scene of the incident Saturday night," CHP said in a statement.
CHP officers came to Cleveland's house at about 2 a.m. Sunday morning, five hours after she was hit, to talk to her, White said. Cleveland, who had just returned from the hospital, asked them to come back another day, White added.
They had not recontacted her as of Monday afternoon, White said.
A representative of the National Lawyers Guild – which monitors law enforcement behavior during protests – said he attempted unsuccessfully to get both the sheriff's and California Highway Patrol officials to come back to the crash site to begin an investigation.
That representative, Cres Vellucci, who was at the scene Saturday night, said the National Lawyers Guild will conduct its own investigation of the incident.
CHP officials say drivers typically are required to stop when they hit a pedestrian. The state Vehicle Code says "the driver of a vehicle involved in an accident resulting in injury to a person, other than himself or herself, or in the death of a person shall immediately stop the vehicle at the scene of the accident."
If not, the driver could be found guilty of a misdemeanor and in some cases a felony.
But Jones and others debated Monday whether there were extenuating circumstances involved in this case, given the anti-law enforcement feelings on the streets Saturday night.
Jones speculated that "it could have been that he did not feel safe to get out of the vehicle at that point or stop the vehicle, which I think most of us just commonsensically might agree with."
The department did not immediately provide a copy of procedures related to vehicle collisions involving sheriff's deputies, but Jones said during the press conference that the department will conduct an internal review into the incident to see if the involved deputy followed the department’s policies and procedures.
Jones has asked the county’s inspector general and former Sacramento Police Chief Rick Braziel to step in as an “independent set of eyes” for the department’s internal review. The deputy involved in the incident has not taken any leave of absence, said Sgt. Shaun Hampton.
Jessica McElfresh, a San Diego-based criminal defense attorney who handles hit-and-run cases, said the officer typically has a duty to check on someone injured in a crash.
"They may argue they felt under threat and had to get out of there for their own safety," she said. "That would be probably the only thing that would justify leaving the scene like that."
John Cary Sims, a professor at McGeorge School of Law, said he is unaware of any legal justification for an officer not stopping and checking on the injured person. Sims said the incident does not appear to be malicious on the officer’s part.
"Sometimes (under stress) our reactions aren’t necessarily as controlled as we want them to be," he said. The officer “may not perceive that pedestrian. Still,” he said, “you have an obligation to stop."
But Ed Obayashi, a deputy sheriff in Plumas County and training adviser for law enforcement agencies, said he believes the officer was right to keep going after he hit Cleveland.
"He exercised good judgment in leaving the scene because if he had stopped and gotten out, I guarantee the riot was on," Obayashi said.
The CHP said it is asking anyone who witnessed the incident or who has photos or videos of the incident to contact the CHP’s South Sacramento Area office at 916-681-2300. Witnesses may refer to incident report number 9252-2018-01427.
The Bee's Anita Chabria and Ryan Lillis contributed to this report.