Marcos Bretón

How an embarrassing blunder by the police chief explains a larger problem at Sac PD

City council critical of police not releasing video by deadline

Interim Sacramento police chief Brian Louie was taken to task by council members during Tuesday night's City Hall meeting for failing to produce on deadline video of a police-involved shooting. Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg and City Council m
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Interim Sacramento police chief Brian Louie was taken to task by council members during Tuesday night's City Hall meeting for failing to produce on deadline video of a police-involved shooting. Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg and City Council m

It was cringe-worthy to watch Sacramento’s interim police chief fall on his sword as he told Mayor Darrell Steinberg and other council members he was unable to comply with the city’s new policy of publicly releasing video of officer-involved shootings within 30 days of the incident.

Opinion

Speaking at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, Brian Louie asked for – and was denied – a waiver for more time to review body- and dash-camera footage from a Feb. 10 shooting in North Sacramento between officers and a wanted parolee named Armani Sicilian Lee.

According to the ordinance, the council can grant a waiver if police officials cite specific and compelling reasons to do so. However, Louie’s reasons were neither specific nor compelling. In fact, they were almost laughable, especially when considering the department already was two weeks past the deadline.

As The Bee’s Anita Chabria reported, Louie said he made a mistake by not reviewing the video at the start of the investigation in part because he did not realize police would be held to the 30-day deadline and would not receive a rubber-stamped waiver simply by asking.

Really? He didn’t realize it?

This ordinance is kind of a big deal. And the Lee video was the first test of it. The policy came as a result of a controversial shooting last July in which two officers killed a mentally ill man in North Sacramento and department leaders – and Sacramento bureaucrats – tried to conceal footage that showed police engaging in questionable behavior, including attempting to run the suspect over with a patrol car before shooting him 14 times.

Police officials only released the footage because The Bee forced their hand by publishing other video it had obtained of the incident from a third party.

The killing of Joseph Mann and its aftermath helped push Sam Somers out the door as Sacramento’s police chief. And it led to the creation of this new policy as a way to develop more transparency and trust between cops and the community they serve.

Without exaggeration, this story has been in The Bee quite often. And on TV. And on the radio. In fact, it became an international story. But Louie didn’t realize it?

Even more noteworthy on Tuesday was that Louie didn’t seem to realize something else: how badly he was damaging his chances for staying on as chief of a troubled department. But the council let him know, one public scolding after another, before they ordered him to release the video.

“This is about changing the culture (of the department),” said Steinberg, looking about as agitated as you will ever see him in public.

Even Angelique Ashby, who is the strongest law enforcement supporter on the council, was visibly angry as she chastised Louie from the dais, warning him that it would be a “problem” if the release of the footage took more than two weeks. Her unspoken words to Louie? “Dude, what the heck are you doing?”

The answer is that Louie was doing business as Somers had before him, which is to say that Louie and his department are not into transparency when it comes to shooting incidents involving their officers.

As a department, they are very good in just about every other respect. But when cops fire their guns at suspects in the Sacramento area – and pretty much anywhere else in America – a familiar pattern emerges: The police who control the video refuse to release it. The local district attorney backs this approach. The cops investigate other cops, taking months, if not years, to release their findings. The DA rubber stamps those findings. And on it goes.

Cities such as Sacramento have attempted to insert civilian oversight into the process. But in some ways, the city’s video policy is a token gesture of accountability, given how easy it is for any officer to discharge a gun and face few consequences for it, even if the shooting looks terrible – as the Mann shooting did. The laws are stacked heavily in favor of cops. There really isn’t much any city can do about it.

But here’s what adds a level of absurdity to this whole affair: By all accounts, the Lee shooting was perfectly justified. He allegedly exchanged gunfire with police after they tried to detain him on a side street off Del Paso Boulevard. Lee, 28, was injured and hospitalized. He recovered and is being held without bail in the Sacramento County Main Jail, facing several felony charges, including three counts of attempted murder. No officers were shot in the encounter.

With an incredulous look on his face, Steinberg on Tuesday said if these reports were confirmed by the footage, he would publicly praise the police officers. For what it’s worth, so would I. Police work is dangerous. There are dangerous people out there. And if they are shooting at cops that means they’ll shoot at me, you, anybody.

“We feel releasing this video helps the department,” Steinberg said.

It does and here’s why: There are some shootings that are unavoidable. And if the public is exposed to this fact more often, it creates a greater level of understanding for what cops are up against. But when police officials needlessly conceal information, or blatantly disregard the public’s right to know, it makes people suspicious of all officers.

That may not be fair, but it’s also a self-inflicted wound. It speaks to the ingrained, insular culture Steinberg was referring to. That culture has to change and Louie, by his actions, doesn’t seem to realize this or appreciate it. That puts Sacramento behind the curve.

“More leaders in law enforcement are understanding the world of social media has changed everything in the last four years,” said Rick Braziel, the former Sacramento police chief who is now the inspector general for Sacramento County. Braziel also speaks nationally to law enforcement agencies seeking to keep up with new demands for transparency in the age of smartphones.

Braziel said it wasn’t appropriate for him to comment on current events within Sac PD. But speaking generally about transparency issues in policing, he said, “Not releasing information creates the perception that you are hiding something. The world has changed and you’ve got to get your information out.”

That Louie didn’t understand this is a cautionary tale for Sacramento, and not just on the issue of transparency. The department has seen senior officers leave for other agencies. There is a sense that officers aren’t supported properly. These issues often get brought up during contract negotiations, but they are symptoms of a problem, not the root cause of it.

If a department is operating well, it shouldn’t matter who is on the City Council, nor should it matter what policies the council creates. A smart, capable chief runs the department but understands the need for civilian leadership and is able to bridge the divide. Braziel did that very well in his day.

Sac PD officers are bolting to take jobs in other cities. Morale in the department is low. But instead of blaming others, it seems appropriate to ask if the larger issue here has been a lack of effective leadership since Braziel retired in 2012.

Louie’s tough week might be the strongest signal yet that the city needs to bring in a more skillful person to right the ship.

Marcos Breton: 916-321-1096, @MarcosBreton

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