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You probably won’t be satisfied with how this Sacramento police shooting plays out

See helicopter view of Sacramento police shooting Stephon Clark dead

The Sacramento Police Department has released helicopter footage of the Stephon Clark shooting where officers fatally shot the unarmed black man who was holding his cellphone in his grandparents' backyard.
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The Sacramento Police Department has released helicopter footage of the Stephon Clark shooting where officers fatally shot the unarmed black man who was holding his cellphone in his grandparents' backyard.

It is very likely that the legal and procedural outcome in the fatal shooting of Stephon Clark by Sacramento police officers Sunday night will disappoint many people.

The death of Clark, 22, at the hands of two young officers has raged across social media and drawn national attention, including the focus of activists such as the Rev. Al Sharpton, who said he plans to travel to the capital city in the next week.

Suddenly, Sacramento is being viewed as the epicenter of police brutality in America.

The Sacramento Police Department has released body cam footage of the Stephon Clark shooting where officers fatally shot the unarmed black man who was holding his cellphone in his grandparents' backyard.

With the rapid release of police video in the south Sacramento fatal shooting, which took place in the backyard of Clark's grandparents, an expectation of justice for the deceased is taking root. Clark was unarmed when he was fatally shot by police, who discharged their weapons 20 times. Police originally had been called out over reports of someone breaking car windows.

Should the officers be charged with murder? Fired? Suspended? Chained to administrative duty for the remainder of their careers?

Opinion

Because of federal case law, the occurrence of any of those outcomes is doubtful. Though deservedly criticized for shying away from prosecuting killer cops before, District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert should have an easy call with the Clark case.

In the tragic, final moments of Clark's life, the officers yelled "gun!" and then began blasting. It ended up Clark only had a cellphone in his hand. However, case law on the use of deadly force by police is clear: If the officers fear for their lives, they can shoot to kill.

Body-camera footage released Wednesday captured the officers' comments after they had stopped shooting and showed they not only believed Clark had a gun, they believed he had shot at them as well.

Once the officers are cleared of legal wrongdoing, all eyes will turn to what happens to them within the Sacramento Police Department, which will determine if the officers followed procedure. Will they be fired, as the department fired John Tennis, one of the officers who fatally shot Joseph Mann, a mentally ill man, on a North Sacramento street in 2016?

In that case, one could argue that Schubert could have prosecuted Tennis and his then-partner, Randy Lozoya. While other officers tried to peacefully apprehend Mann, who was acting erratically, Lozoya and Tennis first tried to run him down with their police cruiser. Then the two officers blew by more restrained colleagues and gunned Mann down.

The video of the Mann incident, which the city of Sacramento initially tried to conceal, clearly showed that it was a bad shooting, Schubert's failure to prosecute notwithstanding. In the case of the Clark shooting, the video is harder to assess.

Nevertheless, the footage fills viewers with anguish for the deceased, his family, his young children and community. It speaks to cultural biases that live in police departments, whether the officers who shot Clark are ethnic or racial minorities or not.

In February, in broad daylight in East Sacramento, police were able to arrest Juan Carlos Heras-Castro even though he was booked for attempted murder for allegedly wrestling an officer's gun away from him and shooting it. (An off-duty firefighter helped the officer restrain Heras-Castro.) That incident took place in a "nice" neighborhood in the daytime.

Clark was in a neighborhood associated with drugs and violence. The incident occurred at night. Dogs were barking loudly at the officers as they searched for a suspect they believed was breaking windows. Some believe this affected the officers' judgment.

"If you only look at me as scary, then I'm going to die," said Derrell Roberts, a North Sacramento community activist and youth mentor. "Too many of our sons die because police are scared of them. You can't be scared doing this job."

WARNING: Graphic content. This is the view from camera 2 of the shooting of Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man, by Sacramento police in his grandparents’ backyard. The shooting occurs after the 8-minute mark.

Body-cam video clearly shows the officers telling Clark to stop and show his hands. They chased him after he ran, and took cover behind a wall once they thought they saw a gun.

There was a law enforcement helicopter overhead. More officers were on the way. Since the officers had cover, why not take a defensive position until reinforcements arrive? Why not tell the young man he is surrounded and give him time to surrender?

That idea that Clark wasn't truly a threat and that the officers panicked leaves Sacramento police Chief Daniel Hahn, the first African American chief in city history, with a real crisis on his hands.

His immediate problem is not within his own ranks. His problem can be found in a community that has supported him in the past but may be losing its patience, the same community that gave him a pass last year when he did not fire a white officer who beat up an African American suspect accused of jaywalking.

Hahn, however, isn't being praised enough for releasing the video of the Clark incident three days after it happened, when his recent predecessors wouldn't release video at all. He took the heat at Tuesday's City Council meeting. On Thursday, Hahn met with local representatives from the NAACP.

He has done everything right so far, but harder tasks lie ahead.

He is going to have to re-examine how his officers are trained. He is going to have to force them to acknowledge inherent biases against young African American men. He is going to have to explain why his officers hit the mute button on their body cameras at the precise moment it appeared they realized they had killed a man armed only with a cellphone.

The end result of the Clark incident could be a radical restructuring of how Sacramento police respond to those calls. Will the community stay with Hahn as he works toward that outcome? The answer to that question is part of the massive challenge faced by Sacramento's chief.

Sacramento Bee reporter Anita Chabria was a guest on WNYC's The Takeaway on Thursday to discuss the shooting of 22-year-old Stephon Clark this week by Sacramento Police officers.

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