It’s tough to say what has tarnished the reputation of Sacramento police more: the fatal shooting of a mentally ill man last summer by officers who first tried to run him over in their patrol car, or the subsequent suppression of video and other materials related to the shooting by the department and key figures in City Hall.
The public’s goodwill toward government institutions, difficult to earn in the first place, can be even harder to regain once it’s lost.
Tasked with repairing any broken trust is Arturo Sanchez, the city’s new assistant manager, who arrived in Sacramento last week. Sanchez also will play a major role in helping the city hire a new police chief. And he will help negotiate a new labor deal with city cops.
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His first day on the job was Monday, and yeah, no pressure at all for the 42-year-old lawyer with the soul of a social worker.
Is there a more difficult job in Sacramento right now than being the point person for the city in its relationship with two departments – police and fire – that take up huge chunks of the budget? At any time, these agencies could find themselves in conflict with either of Sanchez’s two sets of bosses: the public, and City Hall’s elected officials and bureaucrats.
It’s a job Sanchez relishes but never planned.
“Nothing good ever happened to me because I expected it,” Sanchez said in a direct, sincere way that charmed local leaders into recruiting him. “It was more like serendipity. Life has a way of providing you certain pathways.”
A year ago, Sanchez, the son of Mexican immigrants, had no plans to leave his native Southern California. In early 2015, he had gotten his dream job in Long Beach, helping that city bolster its public safety efforts. He was close to his family again, after more than a decade of distinguished work in Oakland.
It was Sanchez who wrote Oakland’s marijuana ordinance. It was Sanchez who oversaw Oakland’s Citizens’ Police Review Board, which investigated complaints of officer misconduct. He took on drug dealers and odious landlords. He was well respected and could have continued his career in the Bay Area. But no, Sanchez had his mind set on returning to Southern California, with his wife and infant daughter in tow.
However, after only a year on the job in Long Beach, that plan was upended.
“In March of 2016, my daughter was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy,” Sanchez said. “In her muscle system, a gene that is supposed to feed her muscles doesn’t exist. In all likelihood she will never walk.”
In a nod to his wife’s Guatemalan ancestry, Sanchez’s daughter is named Alixel, which means “princess” in the Mayan dialect of K’iche’.
“Her life expectancy is unknown,” he said. “At any given moment her lungs could stop working. She could lose her ability to swallow.”
The Sanchezes were devastated by the diagnosis. But they also were resolute in giving their daughter the best life she could possibly have.
Sanchez and his wife, Hatzune, began discussing how they could do that, and the search led them to the conclusion that moving back to Northern California would be best. It would put them closer to Hatzune’s family, and Sanchez felt that was important. His wife had worked in Sacramento years ago as a lobbyist and loved the city.
Meanwhile, interim City Manager Howard Chan had heard of Sanchez from mutual friends. Chan needed someone to help repair public trust with public safety agencies in Sacramento. The two met over coffee last fall.
“Within a few minutes of talking to him, I had this feeling of comfort,” Chan said. “He was very calm. It wasn’t even like an interview. I just loved what I heard.”
Sanchez is a self-described “open book.” He’ll discuss the most painful experience a parent could face without anger or resentment. It’s all part of a world view in which detours in life are accepted with a positive outlook.
“I needed to put my wife and family in place where they could get support,” he said. “When you get lemons, you have to think about what you’re doing to make lemonade.”
Looking “for a fresh pair of eyes,” Chan offered Sanchez the job. Sanchez accepted, moved the family to Sacramento and inherited an explosive situation that played out last summer while Sanchez was coming to grips with his daughter’s diagnosis.
Sanchez is not in position to comment directly on the fatal shooting of Joseph Mann by Sacramento police officers in North Sacramento last July. He wasn’t here at the time and wasn’t involved in the city’s response. But he did say that “cities need to change the paradigm” of how they respond to police shootings, now that public reaction – and scrutiny – is almost immediate on social media.
“How do you achieve change while maintaining the respect and dignity of all the parties involved?” Sanchez asked. “That’s the art of what we do.”
Sacramento already has begun changing. In November, the City Council passed a package of police reforms, including one related to video. Under the new ordinance, Sac PD is required to release all video in officer-involved fatalities within 30 days if it “does not hamper, impede or taint” an investigation.
The ordinance does not apply retroactively. However, last week, Chan, who oversees the Police Department, helped to facilitate the release of audio and video related to another officer-involved fatal shooting, this one in south Sacramento. The move was supported by Mayor Darrell Steinberg.
Dazion Flenaugh, who also was mentally ill, was killed by police in April. Previously, department officials had refused to release any related audio/video to Flenaugh’s family or to The Sacramento Bee.
On Friday, the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office concluded that the three officers who shot Flenaugh acted lawfully and will not face charges. Also on Friday, city officials acknowledged they have not released all of the audio and video they have in that case, just what they deemed “pertinent.” That distinction may prove to be the first transparency issue that Sanchez has to deal with in his new position, as he tries to apply his openness to shuttered relationships between police and neighborhoods that don’t trust the cops.
Sanchez said he plans to reach out to struggling communities as he did in Oakland and Long Beach. He is the child of immigrants who sometimes saw his own parents mistreated by government authorities. That triggered a desire to work in government, to make the lives of people better. He wears a jacket everyday to demonstrate a commitment to treating people with professionalism, courtesy and respect.
As he was getting acclimated during his first week in his new role, Sanchez gave the impression of someone who is unafraid of challenges. Making the city and its police force more transparent isn’t even close to being the toughest task he confronts each day. Nevertheless, his enthusiasm for his new post was apparent.
“I have to tell you, I’m excited about this job,” he said.