Gradually, over the last few years, the Sacramento Police Department lost its way. It’s become insular and defensive. It’s been a long time since the department has seemed strategic or smart. Strident voices inside and outside the department are being heard the loudest, to the detriment of the organization. It’s been too long since the chief of police in Sacramento has spoken for the department in a strong, clear voice.
In such a vacuum of leadership, bad things can happen – and they have. The recent beating of a young African American man by an inexperienced officer on the ridiculous pretext of enforcing a jaywalking ticket is the latest self-inflicted wound by a department that should be better than this.
There are several reasons why the Sacramento Police Department is mired in a crisis of confidence. There is only one solution to end the crisis: Sacramento needs to hire a new chief from the outside to come in and lead its officers. It would be best if that new chief had no prior connections to Sac PD at all – no longstanding friendships, no previously established perceptions, no sacred cows or hit lists.
It’s been nearly 25 years since a fresh face was brought in to lead to Sac PD, and it shows. This is especially true when organizational statements make no sense when offered as explanations for egregious incidents such as the beating and arrest of Nandi Cain on April 10 for jaywalking in Del Paso Heights.
In the wake of this incident, Sac PD announced – by way of explanation – that it had received a $622,627 grant from the California Office of Traffic Safety “for a yearlong program of traffic-related enforcement and public awareness efforts to prevent pedestrian accidents after such fatalities jumped citywide from eight to 18 over a one-year period,” The Bee reported on April 19. “The department said it spent some of that money on pedestrian and cyclist enforcement around Del Paso Boulevard.”
So you’re telling the public that you are so concerned about traffic safety in Del Paso Heights that physically beating alleged jaywalkers is an enforcement tool to keep them safe?
As you process that question, consider that Cain, 24, may not have even been jaywalking at all when he was confronted by Officer Anthony Figueroa.
“He was crossing in an unmarked crosswalk, which are legal crossings both in the state of California and the city of Sacramento,” said Kirin Kumar, executive director of WalkSacramento, in an April 22 Bee story.
In addition, consider that the north Sacramento business group that police say asked them to step up pedestrian safety had no idea that they had stepped up pedestrian safety. Consider that City Council member Allen Warren, who represents District 2, said he was equally stunned to learn that of all the issues facing Del Paso Heights, Sac PD was going to the mattresses on jaywalking.
“I had no idea that they were doing what they were doing,” Warren said. “I don’t care where (the citations) happened at. It’s targeted policing. It's not being enforced throughout the city the same way, and it’s profiling.”
Who is in charge here? Who is not only capable of getting out in front when a situation goes bad, but also has sound policies in place to prevent some confrontations from happening? No one currently working at Sac PD, obviously.
It’s not as if the department hasn’t been accused of profiling in the past. In 2008, community activists – and some City Council members – were asking the Police Department tough questions about profiling African American suspects. The council meeting where this discussion played out was tense and difficult.
But then Chief Rick Braziel stood up and explained what the department was doing and why. Braziel didn’t get defensive, even when some council members were more than a little disrespectful to him. In the end, even some concerned community members praised Braziel and the department. There were some cops who privately were angry because then Mayor Heather Fargo apologized to the community for police tactics. But Braziel understood that criticism comes with the territory of policing and ultimately, it was his voice and his leadership that carried the day.
It’s hard to imagine Sac PD under Braziel adopting a strategy of strict pedestrian enforcement without the public and elected officials knowing about it. But since Braziel retired in 2012, there have been a series of regrettable incidents in which police tactics and messaging missed the mark badly.
Last summer, the fatal shooting of Joseph Mann in north Sacramento got national attention when then-Chief Sam Somers Jr. – along with former City Manager John Shirey – worked to conceal video of the shooting from the public. Also last summer, a protest at the state Capitol between neo-Nazi skinheads and counterprotestors exploded into a full-fledged melee, replete with disturbing images of people bloodied on the street while city cops and California Highway Patrol officers were slow to respond.
What happened to the precision of city cops under former Chief Albert Najera, when potentially violent protests were neutralized during a 2003 U.S. Department of Agriculture conference? What happened to the smart policing under Braziel that prevented Occupy Sacramento from repeating the chaos caused by Occupy groups in Oakland and other strife-torn cities?
Meanwhile, the department has lost many seasoned officers in recent years. Some blame that on a lack of compensation relative to other departments, but that logic leads nowhere. I know enough cops at Sac PD to understand that they aren’t driven by money. They love the department. They love the city. They need a leader.
Ten years ago, when the city was searching for a replacement for Najera, I met with Braziel, Somers and current acting Chief Brian Louie individually. To me, there was a big chasm in organizational vision between Braziel and Somers. And a big chasm between Somers and Louie.
It’s clear that this chain of management first groomed by former Chief Arturo Venegas in the 1990s has run its course. There is no shame in that. Somers, Louie and other senior officers have had distinguished careers and served the city well.
But being the chief requires something more. Venegas was the city’s first Latino chief and a necessary change agent. Back then, Sac PD needed to address a rotten core of good ol’ boys and Venegas did that, along with making the department more open, professional and receptive to new training and technology.
Today, the Sacramento Police Department needs a chief who doesn’t need to be forced into transparency by City Council ordinances.
It needs a chief who understands that everyone has a cellphone camera and will use it. It needs a chief who understands that tough enforcement methods must go hand in hand with treating the public – everyone – as customers, not automatic suspects.
It needs a chief who will school officers in the knowledge that simply because they have the power to stop and subdue, that doesn’t mean they should always use that power. A smart department will groom smart officers who don’t turn jaywalking into federal lawsuits. A smart officer will convey the message to a jaywalker: I just want you to be safe.
Sac PD needs that smart voice now, to counter police union activists circling the wagons around egregious behavior.
Sac PD needs that fresh perspective to make the hard decisions without the biases built up by familiarity. It’s time for a change.