One night last March, two Sacramento police officers chased Stephon Clark around a blind corner during a foot pursuit in Meadowview, fatally shooting the young black man moments after apparently mistaking his cellphone for a gun.
Under a new policy set to be announced by the department Monday, foot pursuits in risky circumstances like the one that ended Clark’s life may be discouraged. Instead, officers will be asked to weigh their own safety, the safety of the public and the importance of apprehending the person before and during a pursuit.
“(I)t’s really a policy to give direction and guidance ... around what our officers are supposed to do, what they’re supposed to think about, what they’re supposed to weigh anytime they get into a situation when they’re chasing after a suspect,” said Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn in an interview with The Bee.
The department has not completed its internal affairs investigation of the Clark shooting and Hahn said the new policy does not pass judgment on how the two officers, Terrence Mercadal and Jared Robinet, handled the chase and subsequent shooting.
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But Hahn said the policy, which went into effect July 26, is a direct result of the Clark shooting and is the first major policy change the department has instituted after that incident.
Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who called for an examination of the department’s foot pursuit training after the Clark shooting, said he supported the new policy.
“I think this is a bold move and a necessary move,” said Steinberg. “(Chief Hahn) and the city promised real, tangible change in the wake of the Stephon Clark shooting, and while this is not the end of the necessary changes, it’s a crucial step forward.”
Foot pursuit policies are still relatively rare in police departments across the United States, but have been gaining traction in recent years. In 2003, the International Association of Chiefs of Police created a model foot pursuit policy, and in the intervening years, some departments have enacted policies similar to the one Sacramento has crafted. Like vehicle pursuit policies, which Sacramento has and which are common across the country, the policies came out of growing awareness that pursuing subjects presents dangers to both the officer and the public.
Hahn said several officers had been injured while chasing after suspects, and he said he knew of one sheriff’s deputy who had been killed in a foot pursuit.
The Sacramento department’s use of force committee, staffed by law enforcement and community members, looked at policies from Pasadena; Santa Monica; Portland, Ore., and Dallas before drafting the new policy for Sacramento.
The policy orders officers to continually take their surroundings and the availability of backup into account when chasing a suspect. If officers start a chase, they must activate their body-cams and tell their supervisor the reason for the foot pursuit and give a description of the suspect.
The policy also says the officers must identify themselves as officers and order the suspect to stop, something community members said the two officers didn’t do the night they chased and shot Clark. No notification of the officers’ identity can be heard on body camera footage released by the department.
Officers also have to constantly assess whether to continue a foot pursuit if a suspect runs into a building, confined space or difficult terrain, the policy states.
If it becomes too dangerous or if there are too many unknown factors, a supervisor can order the officer to stop the chase – or officers can decide to stop on their own with no repercussions for the decision.
“I don’t believe this policy will hamper an officer’s ability to do what we absolutely need them to do in our community, and I do think it will keep both officers and our community safer,” Hahn said.
Sacramento Police Sgt. Nick Echeverria, who trained new officers in foot pursuit scenarios at the police academy, said the policy could lead to safer policing by giving officers a better understanding of the risks and expectations around apprehensions.
Echeverria described a situation recently in which he told one of his officers not to chase three men who were suspected of stealing a car. The officer initially followed the suspects in his patrol car, but the men pulled into an apartment complex and bolted on foot.
Echeverria said he told his officer not to chase the men because he would be outnumbered in an area he didn’t know, and one of the suspects was armed with a gun, making a chase more dangerous.
“These officers truly believe it’s their job to catch people who are suspected of committing crimes, so this policy is especially important for our newer officers,” he said.
Police union leader Tim Davis said he supported the policy because it allows discretion for officers while providing clarity on the department’s expectations.
“It balances everybody’s needs,” Davis said.
Sonia Lewis, a local leader of Black Lives Matter, said she also believed the policy was “a step in the right direction,” but said she believed more needed to be done to change the department culture to ensure policies like this and others were implemented at the street level.
Plumas County Sheriff’s Deputy and police use-of-force expert Ed Obayashi said the policy is valuable because it gives direction to an area of policing often left to impulse.
“It’s natural to start chasing someone when they’re running away from you when they’ve committed a crime or are suspected of committing a crime,” Obayashi said. “That’s just instinct. But the idea here with these policies is to better guide officers in making that decision. Is it worth it to chase this person?”
Obayashi said he did not believe the policy would have changed the outcome of the Clark shooting.
Obayashi said the officers in the Clark shooting “had reasonable suspicion that Clark had committed felonies,” Obayashi said. “In those circumstances the officers have no choice. If someone is trying to break into a home, those officers are obligated to apprehend that subject.”
“No policy I know of would have stopped or prevented it,” he said. “If the Stephon Clark incident happened next week and this policy was in place, it would not have prevented what happened.”
The Clark incident began on March 18, when Sacramento Police officers responded to a 911 call reporting a man breaking into cars in Meadowview. A man was also seen by Sacramento County Sheriff’s deputies in a helicopter apparently trying to break a sliding glass door.
Two responding officers were guided to Clark by a deputy in the helicopter. The officers pursued Clark on foot in a seconds-long encounter that began when they spotted him in the driveway of what later was discovered to be his grandmother’s house. The officers chased him into the backyard and shot him multiple times.
The Clark shooting set off weeks of protests that shut down freeways, blocked entrance to the Golden 1 Center and captured national headlines.
The foot pursuit policy will be publicly discussed at the Sacramento Community Police Review Commission meeting, Monday night at 6 p.m. in the City Council Chambers at 915 I Street.