Marcos Bretón

This kind of leadership shames Sacramento's bungled response to the killing of a black man by police

The person killed by police was African American and mentally ill. Before being fatally shot, the deceased had brandished a weapon and behaved erratically.

Yet instead of de-escalating the situation or using nonlethal means to subdue the individual, police employed deadly force.

In Sacramento, this scenario tragically played out in the killing of Joseph Mann on July 11. In New York, it describes the death of Deborah Danner, who was shot to death in her Bronx apartment by NYPD on Tuesday.

Sacramento police say Mann had a knife when two officers shot him 14 times in North Sacramento. NYPD said Danner tried to strike an officer with a baseball bat before she was killed.

But unlike Sacramento, New York’s official response to the controversial police killing has been speedy and forthright.

“Our officers are supposed to use deadly force only when faced with a dire situation,” said New York Mayor Bill de Blasio less than 24 hours after Danner was killed. “It’s very hard to see that standard was met.

“Deborah Danner should be alive right now, period,” de Blasio continued. “If the protocols had been followed, she would be alive. … Something went horribly wrong here.”

New York police Commissioner James O’Neill agreed. “That’s not the way it’s supposed to go,” said the leader of America’s largest city police force. “It’s not how we train; our first obligation is to preserve life, not to take a life when it can be avoided.”

Sacramento officials haven’t come close to emulating the leadership shown by their counterparts in New York.

In past weeks, members of the Sacramento City Council, including Mayor Kevin Johnson, have called for more transparency and accountability from the police. They also called for public release of video footage of Mann shooting, but met firm resistance from top city officials, including police Chief Sam Somers Jr., City Attorney Jim Sanchez and City Manager John Shirey.

It was only after The Bee’s Anita Chabria got hold of surveillance from a private citizen in late September that police finally released footage.

Dashcam video showed two Sacramento officers attempting to run Mann down with their police cruiser. An officer can be heard saying: “I’m going to hit him.” His partner responds: “OK, go for it.” When that didn’t work, the two officers – John Tennis and Randy Lozoya – exited their vehicle, ran toward Mann and fired on him simultaneously.

Even though they previously had been briefed on the incident by Somers, City Council members said the first time they heard the conversation between the two officers was when news outlets reported on it, a situation Councilman Allen Warren called “extremely alarming.”

But even after seeing the footage and hearing the officers’ words, few council members have said anything of consequence about the incident.

“I have opinions about (the Mann video), but I don’t share them because we live in a society of due process,” Councilman Jeff Harris said last week. “Right now, there is a civil case in process, there is a legal case in process, and until those processes are completed, you really won’t know if our process works or not.”

Councilman Larry Carr has said that council members are refraining from commenting on the Mann video in the same way President Barack Obama refrains from making specific comments about police shootings.

Does that mean de Blasio and O’Neill are wrong? No, it doesn’t.

The response from New York officials not only has been far more decisive than Sacramento’s – coming within hours compared to months – it also reflects political courage that’s lacking here.

Moreover, it reflects structural differences in how the cities are governed. De Blasio is empowered by the city charter to run New York. In Sacramento, the city charter calls for Somers to work for Shirey and for Shirey to run city operations. Shirey reports to the City Council, but it takes a majority to force him to do something.

The sense of paralysis in Sacramento’s response to the Mann killing has been compounded by the political reality that Johnson, Shirey and Somers soon will leave their jobs.

But the differences between New York and Sacramento run deeper. De Blasio obviously understands that he represents all New Yorkers and not just powerful constituencies such as police unions. The fact that New York’s top cop was openly critical of his department reflects an understanding that’s absent in Sacramento.

As established by the U.S. Supreme Court, police officers are given the benefit of the doubt when using lethal force if they feel threatened. They have strong unions behind them as advocates and allies in obtaining legal defense.

The details surrounding the New York shooting will be investigated to determine if the officer operated within the scope of the law. But what O’Neill and De Blasio have done is to speak frankly and directly about policy, tactics and about what they expect of their officers. They have spoken about how NYPD must always attempt to preserve life at all costs. And they have said what happened in the Danner shooting did not reflect the city they want New York to be.

That is effective civilian leadership. That sets a tone for public discourse and demonstrates clearly who is in charge in the city.

Who is in charge in Sacramento right now? Who knows?

Somers hasn’t publicly said a word of praise to the officers who initially responded to Mann and were trying to arrest him peacefully. At City Hall last week, Councilman Steve Hansen dismissively lectured a largely African American audience concerned about the Mann shooting. That happened at a council meeting Johnson didn’t bother to attend.

Anyone who has viewed the Mann video can tell what happened was not right and not reflective of what Sacramento would want from its police officers. It’s just that no one in charge has had the courage to truly say it out loud.

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