What does government obstruction look like? In Sacramento, it begins with a simple word: All.
We all know what “all” means, right? Merriam-Webster defines it as “the whole amount, quantity, or extent.” Synonyms include “everything.” It implies that “nothing has been omitted.”
But in Sacramento, the city attorney, city manager and police chief seem to believe that they – not the dictionary – get to define what all really means when it comes to releasing video of police using force in the line of duty.
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These three men – none of them elected to office – have indicated they will pick and choose what video they view as “pertinent” to release to the public after incidents including officer-involved fatalities.
Mind you, this flies in the face of a package of police reforms approved by the City Council in late November. The council was responding to public criticism after some city officials initially concealed video in the controversial shooting death of Joseph Mann in North Sacramento last July.
Mann, who family members said was mentally ill, was acting erratically and armed with a knife when two Sacramento police officers attempted to hit him with their police cruiser before shooting him 14 times. The incident resulted in community calls for reform after private surveillance video, released by The Sacramento Bee, contradicted initial police reports and prompted the department to release dashcam and other footage it had been withholding.
Last week, The Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office cleared the two police officers of any legal wrongdoing in the Mann case. On Tuesday, Bee reporter Anita Chabria reported that the City Council would discuss in closed session the approval of a settlement with Mann’s family for less than $1 million.
When the council approved its police reforms last year, its expectations about making video public were spelled out clearly: “Release all video associated with an officer-involved shooting, in-custody death, or complaint reported to (Office of Police Safety Accountability) within 30 days, where said video does not hamper, impede, or taint an ongoing investigation or endanger involved parties.”
The language sounds explicit enough, doesn’t it? It gives the impression of a city pushing for more transparency. Which bring us back to the word “all.”
In January, the city released what was billed as all the video in the shooting death of Dazion Flenaugh, a mentally ill man killed in a confrontation with police on Center Parkway last April. The Police Department did not say it was holding anything back because of an ongoing investigation.
The city did not have to make any Flenaugh video public. The ordinance passed in November was not retroactive. But the city, agreeing to operate in the spirit of the new law, said it would honor The Bee’s requests for the materials.
But then it turned out the city didn’t release all the video after all. What it handed over was video that had been curated by interim Police Chief Brian Louie and City Attorney Jim Sanchez and approved by interim City Manager Howard Chan.
“The implementation of the policy was discussed by PD, (Chan) and myself,” Sanchez wrote to Bee reporter Chabria in an email after she questioned why only some of the video was released. “... Ultimately, (Chan) and (Louie) will decide what is relevant/pertinent, subject to the Council discretion as the body that adopted the policy.”
In other words, when it comes to making police video public, the word “all” is actually more qualified than the city policy would indicate. In fact, according to Sanchez’s interpretation, it’s not “all” the video at all. It should actually read “all that video that we decide you can have.”
Here is the problem with saying you’re going to release all the video and then failing to do so. You violate the spirit of transparency the city was promoting. You further erode public trust. You say to citizens they shouldn’t expect true civilian oversight of the police because the police chief, the city manager and the city attorney still control the flow of information.
Why does this matter? Consider what would have happened if the city had continued to conceal video of the two officer trying to run over Mann. What if it had decided that dashcam video wasn’t pertinent because it wasn’t related to the shooting itself? That omission would have fundamentally changed public opinion about the incident.
But here is another reason the city is making a mistake by parsing the word “all”: Doing so continues to cast suspicion on all police officers when it doesn’t have to be that way.
You know what I see when I look at the Flenaugh video (well, at least the video the city released)? A tragic shooting in which the police protected the public. Flenaugh became agitated when riding in the back of a police cruiser. He ran from officers, jumped fences in a residential area. He got hold of an ax, and one resident said he ran from Flenaugh because he feared for his life. Video captured Flenaugh swinging the ax at the door of another resident. Residents were in danger; police opened fire.
Here is what Sacramento police leaders and city bureaucrats don’t seem to understand: Transparency ultimately illustrates for the public how dangerous police work is and how sometimes, no matter how hard you try and how well trained you are, tragedy happens.
All shootings are different: different circumstances, different variables, different officers responding, different suspects. But Sacramento police – like many departments – treat all shootings the same way. They assume a defensive posture, hold onto information for months and inadvertently play a role in sowing suspicion within the public.
And then when that police department and others seem to back off a promise for more transparency? You create more doubt that doesn’t need to exist.
Louie said in a recent interview with The Bee that part of the reason not all of the Flenaugh video was released was because “we’re not there yet with technology. ... It was a huge task for us to get it so that it was releasable.” Mayor Darrell Steinberg needs to prod the city bureaucracy into making that progress rapidly for everyone’s sake, including the Police Department. He campaigned on making police more transparent, and he needs to deliver on that.
Reasonable people can support their police department while still wanting that department to have clear direction from civilian leaders elected by the public. Why? The law gives officers considerable leeway to use deadly force. Officers can apprehend anyone based on probable cause. They’re allowed to be deceptive when questioning suspects. Their service records are protected by state law. In our city – in any city – who has more profound power than that? There has to be a level of accountability to the people.
So the issue isn’t about disparaging police or failing to recognize the dangerous jobs they have. The issue is about making sure officers understand city policy and the public is clear on what is being presented in the name of transparency.
Steinberg told me he has placed this issue on the Feb. 7 agenda for discussion by the council in closed session. “I think the presumption needs to always be more (transparency),” he said. “We need to have a discussion about, and I think the public is entitled to more rather than less.”