Marcos Bretón

Sacramento isn’t immune to Baltimore-type unrest, Mayor Johnson says

Seven years ago, Sacramento had its own racial flare-up between police, some African Americans and politicians.

But it sure wasn’t Baltimore: The national news cameras were nowhere to be found. There was no unrest in the streets and – truthfully – barely anybody showed up to discuss Sacramento’s racial/police problem when it came before the Sacramento City Council.

The focal point of frustration among the very few people paying attention was a city-commissioned report stating that African American motorists were pulled over far more frequently in Sacramento than any other group. As The Sacramento Bee’s Ryan Lillis reported at the time: “(The report) found that black and Latino drivers were asked to get out of their cars more often than Asian and white drivers.”

Latino motorists also were patted down “at a significantly higher rate than would be expected ... Asian and white motorists were stopped less often than would be expected.”

Heather Fargo, then mayor of Sacramento, went so far as to apologize on behalf of the city.

“I want to offer a very sincere and heartfelt apology to those that have suffered from the profiling that has been done,” Fargo said. “I want to apologize to those citizens who feel they haven’t received equal treatment or protection.”

To this day, Sacramento’s Police Department is not very diverse. In the 1990s, the agency was wracked by internal unrest when Arturo Venegas became the first Latino police chief and some senior white officers fought him at every turn.

Yet Venegas changed the culture, rooted out some really bad people over time and forced a new level of openness at Sac PD. By 2008, the response by Sacramento police leadership to the profiling accusations was admirable.

Then-Chief Rick Braziel set a tone of candor that defused the 2008 racial profiling report. Braziel held community meetings. He didn’t shy away from tough questions or withdraw when some questions were posed disrespectfully.

A potentially divisive report fizzled after that. Braziel proved that accountability is the best response to public scrutiny, a lesson painfully felt in Baltimore now with the shocking arrest of police officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray, an African American man who was fatally injured in police custody.

Sacramento has been spared destructive displays of civic unrest. Even national movements like “Occupy” got no real traction here. As Ferguson, Mo., was roiling last year, Sam Somers Jr. – Braziel’s successor – was going to the movies with leaders of Sacramento’s African American clergy to see the civil rights film “Selma.”

Somers promotes a program called “Cops and Clergy,” in which his officers work hand in hand with African American faith leaders on a variety of fronts. Some very dangerous people have been arrested with the help of community members who spoke up and trusted police because clergy members encouraged them to do so.

Despite this, we know that African American youths die at a higher rate than other groups in Sacramento. We know poverty is clustered on Mack Road, in south Sacramento, Oak Park, Del Paso Heights and other communities where too many young people of color have negative encounters with police.

The 2008 racial profiling report noted that 41 percent of parolees in Sacramento were African American, as were 32 percent of people on probation. Meanwhile, 58 percent of suspects on information bulletins dispatched to police were African American. Many of those calls for service were also placed by African American crime victims.

These numbers suggest that Sacramento has the same festering social issues stoking unrest in Baltimore.

Kevin Johnson, Sacramento’s first black mayor, is acutely aware of the potential for an explosion of rage in Sacramento’s black community. He grew up in Oak Park, which is still plagued by poverty, crime and lack of opportunity.

Johnson, who heads the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said Friday that he was deeply troubled by the news that six Baltimore officers were being prosecuted in the death of Freddie Gray.

“I will be honest that this indictment will undoubtedly stir powerful emotions, as it calls into question a fundamental societal belief we have faith in our police force to serve and protect the community,” Johnson said.

In some respects, Sacramento is calm today because at critical points in the last several years enough key people have been willing to put community over divisions. Whether it has been Braziel, Somers, Johnson or many others, that candor and respect for community has helped keep Sacramento calm. It’s worth celebrating, but not declaring victory.

What happened to Gray “is actually terrifying to me,” Johnson said. “There’s so much frustration, anger and uncertainty, and that has to be directed somewhere. As elected officials, we expect to have to bear the brunt of these situations. ... Watching the Baltimore situation unfold over the last few days has undoubtedly made all mayors across the country say to themselves, ‘This could happen to us.’ ”

Call The Bee’s Marcos Breton, (916) 321-1096.