Marcos Bretón

Fired, retired or expired: Why is Sacramento’s police chief walking away?

Sam Somers Jr. is named chief of the Sacramento Police Department at Sacramento City Hall in 2013.
Sam Somers Jr. is named chief of the Sacramento Police Department at Sacramento City Hall in 2013. Sacramento Bee file

Sam Somers Jr. isn’t being eased out the door as Sacramento’s police chief because two of his officers shot a mentally ill black man 16 times in a deadly north city confrontation.

No, the story of Somers retiring in December, an announcement he made last week, is more nuanced than that.

There had been no public calls for Somers to quit or be fired after 32 exemplary years of public service. In that time, Somers, 53, literally rose from the lowest job in his department to the highest. But behind the scenes, in backroom conversations not unlike those that hastened the departures of past Sacramento chiefs, Somers’ exit became a fait accompli.

The fatal shooting of Joseph Mann on July 11 in North Sacramento was simply the clincher, the event that made it clear there were divisions between the department and the city over how information is shared with the public. Several City Council members want more transparency. Because of this tension, and because of changes coming in Sacramento, there was no way forward for Somers as chief.

City Manager John Shirey, Somers’ boss, is on the way out himself. Darrell Steinberg will be sworn in as the new mayor in December. A new political dynamic is in the offing.

The four police chiefs who served Sacramento during the span of Somers’ career – Jack Kearns, Art Venegas, Albert Najera and Rick Braziel – all had seen their shelf life expire due to politics or had bolted before getting shoved toward the door.

Kearns served from 1977 to 1992. But when Joe Serna Jr. became the first Latino mayor in city history in 1992, a top priority was shaking up the department and making it more professional. Venegas became that change agent and served as chief for a noteworthy and turbulent 10 years. Najera, who is as shrewd and smooth as they come, served five years after that. Braziel then served nearly five, and could have stayed on, but was burned out after repeated budget cuts.

What is different about Somers’ time in the top spot are the times themselves and the questions they have spawned, such as: Why did police have to shoot a mentally ill person? Why is video from the shooting kept from the public? Why is the investigation of the shooting so secretive?

Somers isn’t the only one on the hook for these questions. The entire city power structure assumed a defensive position after the Mann shooting. But Somers is in agreement with keeping information restricted until various branches of law enforcement review the shooting. To him, this is how it’s always worked.

Chiefs who led the department when Somers came of age professionally used to refer to the same 1990s playbook of circling the wagons after questionable shootings. But that playbook is obsolete now.

Somers’ generation of cop is out of step with a new paradigm in community/police relations, one where the public is no longer so quickly mollified after a troubling shooting. Add to this mix four Sacramento City Council members who are African American – and who are under pressure from the community after the Mann shooting – and you have the dilemma of Somers’ tenure as chief.

Somers has been a conventional chief in extraordinary times. He wasn’t a lightning rod, as Venegas had been from the day he was brought in from Fresno to be the first Mexican American chief in city history. He wasn’t as domineering as Najera. He wasn’t as cerebral as Braziel. If anything, Somers was a throwback to Kearns’ era, a cops’ cop who knew the department before he even joined it in 1984.

Somers had thought he was going to be a keyboard player in an ’80s pop band when he was a student at Sacramento State. He played gigs all over the region. He even played piano at weddings. But policing came naturally. Somers’ dad was a career officer in Sacramento PD, and then so was Somers.

As a peace officer, he’s been steady, approachable, amiable, sincere. Somers wasn’t on a mission to restore morale in the department, as Najera was. He is not the strategic thinker Braziel was in keeping the department viable amid deep budget cuts. He is not charismatic as Venegas.

Somers’ strength of personality is revealed more in small groups or one on one. If you ask about what motivates him in his work, he’ll tell you about the young officer he was, responding to an accident, helping victims who were in shock and bringing them to a safe place. “To be that guiding voice, someone who just showed up to help you, someone you don’t even know. That’s what I wanted to do,” he said.

He became a SWAT officer who had to be badgered into taking the sergeant’s test. He really wasn’t that interested. But after he took it, he was on an upward trajectory. He was the guy who could get any job done, so he did.

As chief, Somers was able to restore some positions lost in the recession. He was proud of a program that linked cops and clergy. He upheld department standards of training and advocated for his troops.

Somers took the helm of the Sacramento Police Department in 2013. During his first two years in office, violent crime in Sacramento continued on a downward trend, but spiked in 2015. (Violent crime also rose statewide that year.) Through June, violent crime was down by about 5 percent compared to the first six months of 2015, city police statistics show. Homicides were down almost 50 percent.

Overall, Somers has been a faithful steward, a solid caretaker. But a lot changed during his watch. Black Lives Matter was created in the summer of 2013 after George Zimmerman, a Florida man, was acquitted for the shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African American teenager. A year later, Michael Brown – an unarmed African American teenager from Ferguson, Mo. – was killed after a confrontation with police. BLM became a movement, taking to the streets and demonstrating in response to the shootings of African Americans and the lack of accountability or transparency with police departments.

Subsequent fatal shootings made the names of black people killed by police synonymous with a growing awareness and civil unrest. Those names are many and include: Jonathan Ferrell, John Crawford, Ezell Ford, Laquan McDonald, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Samuel DuBose, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.

In each case, the public wondered whether the killing was necessary. In each case, information was closely guarded and the final outcome of law enforcement investigations often left more questions than answers.

None of these incidents took place in Sacramento, but they changed the job description of police chiefs across the country. One could argue that Somers’ job as chief changed more in the last three years than it had in the previous 30. Cellphone cameras make every police confrontation a possible flashpoint, and any critic has a platform on social media.

Nevertheless, Somers remained the traditionalist. “You have to have faith in something; otherwise, where are we?” he said. He preached having faith in the police as the public continues to feel frustration with secretive investigations after officers use deadly force. As hard as he has worked to build trust in some of Sacramento’s struggling communities, Somers knows trust has eroded. “Some of the communities that see us in the worst light are the communities that need us the most,” he said.

Somers’ last day on the job is Dec. 9. The next chief is going to have to find a way to bridge the trust gap and slow an exodus of experienced officers leaving for more lucrative departments. “We need to love our police officers,” Somers said. “Because if we don’t, someone else will.”

The next chief also will have to cope with the reality that police are the last line of defense between the public and mentally ill people, homeless people, dangerous people. “There is no way to quantify all the lives that you save,” Somers said. “But society is so polarized now. Some people think: ‘You either see it my way, or you’re wrong.’ 

Herein lies the trust gap that Somers will leave behind. He sees all the good that his officers do in Sacramento. Others in the community see it, too. But in cases of deadly force, police departments and cities still close ranks. Reasonable people wonder if cops investigating other cops cover up for them. They wonder if deadly force is being applied in the right ways.

Somers said he has met with some members of the Mann family. It appears they are moving forward with a civil lawsuit while the city hunkers down. He didn’t create this reality. It was something that happened not long after he took a job he never imagined he’d have when he started out as a police officer.

It’s why he’s leaving now. The world changed on him.

Editor’s note: This story was changed Sept. 18 to correct the location of the Joseph Mann shooting.

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