Marcos Bretón

If one of your deputies hits a protester, what do you do? Dodge and weave

The news conference was, quite possibly, the purest example of butt-covering that Sacramento has seen in quite some time. It wasn't just what Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones said during his head-scratching performance Monday as he attempted to divert blame from a deputy who hit a woman with his SUV and kept driving.

What Jones didn't say was just as revealing, and that truly put him in a singular category of obfuscation among local "leaders."

Jones didn't say he was sorry that Wanda Cleveland, a 61-year-old local activist, was hit by a sheriff's SUV at the corner of Florin Road and Stockton Boulevard on Saturday night during a Stephon Clark protest. Instead, Cleveland was part of "an unfortunate event that punctuated an otherwise fantastic evening."

Jones didn't say that he was concerned or troubled or bothered by video clearly showing one of his deputies hitting a woman with an SUV.

If you're going to hold a press conference about an alleged hit-and-run involving one of your officers, you act like a human being, let people see that you are serious about what the video shows and then you shut up and let the investigation happen.

Opinion

Instead, Jones careened back and forth between speculation and indignation, tossing out possible scenarios for why his deputy hit a woman with an SUV and kept going – words that could not have been helpful to investigators who will look into this case.

Presumably the California Highway Patrol has not gotten very far at all in its criminal investigation, and neither has the sheriff's internal affairs office. Yet the sheriff theorized that the deputy may have been distracted by protestors or may not have been aware of what he did. You always hear law enforcement say they don't want to comment because they don't want to taint an investigation.

So I guess you only talk – or show video that you normally don't share – when you want to tell the public that your guy is innocent before the investigation is even concluded.

Mr. Sheriff, it's that kind of attitude that drives people to the streets to protest.

I know what I saw in that video: Cleveland was clearly visible in selected dashcam video that Jones presented at the news conference.

And, apparently, these officers had no idea that their substation would be the site of the latest in a series of protests that have made national and international news since an unarmed Clark was killed by Sacramento police on March 18. These officers weren't part of the team deployed to deal with Clark protestors, Jones said. They were not listening to the radio chatter about the Clark protests.

So apparently, the Clark protest was not the subject of discussion at the south area substation. And prominent announcements on social media that the protest would take place at the south area substation were news to these officers. Unless you have been living in isolation since the shooting, you should know the protests move around. They are mobile. Wouldn't officers who presumably have group briefings before they hit the streets know this? Are we to believe that these officers were unaware that protesters would be in the vicinity of where they worked and that maybe – just maybe? – they might want to be aware of protest movements on their way back to the office?

And here is what also didn't make sense: Why were the officers seemingly in a hurry to get back to the office? Jones said they were headed back to the substation to process evidence after an arrest that was not related to the protest. Is there an internal competition where officers race each other to determine who can process evidence the quickest?

If they' have already made the arrest, the person is presumably in handcuffs or in some form of incarceration. That person wasn't going anywhere that night.

None of it made sense, none of it passed for a plausible explanation, none of it conveyed remorse, regret or a sense that sworn officers are not supposed to strike civilians with their SUVs and flee the scene.

If I were captured hitting someone on video with my beat-up old truck, and if I didn't stop and simply went home, I would be charged with hit-and-run. You would be charged with hit-and-run. Any of us would be charged with hit-and-run.

But when a reporter used the phrase hit-and-run as a possible outcome of this case, Jones did what he always does when his narrative is challenged: He conveyed self-righteous, self-serving indignation.

"First of all, hit-and-run is a legal conclusion ," said Jones, who is also a lawyer. "Investigative agencies, all public safety agencies, don't have the luxury of coming up with the conclusions first and working backwards, like we've seen a lot in the last couple of weeks."

OK, but: If it were me, I wouldn't be convicted yet, I would be presumed innocent, but I would be in big trouble. I certainly would have been arrested and spent some time in Jones' jail. And so would you.

That's why Jones' answer to the hit-and-run question is vintage. It very cleverly avoided the point, that any of us would have been arrested. And it expressed his view of the world, where what he does, and what law enforcement does, is always above reproach.

Well, it's not. We have the right to question authority. The fact that an officer could not only strike a pedestrian and not be arrested but still be on the job is but one example of why people were protesting at the sheriff's substation in the first place.

Should the leader of the largest law enforcement agency in Sacramento County have been more forthcoming, more reasonable, more human? Yes. But instead, Jones tossed out the red herring that there were professional agitators out in the crowd, an unsubstantiated tidbit that some in the TV news corps snatched up and ran with without question.

That was sad and so is this: Sacramento police had faced protesters for two weeks without incident. Sacramento County sheriff's deputies couldn't get through one night without running over someone. And Jones stood before the cameras and figuratively said, "Look, over there! Agitators!" That's a leader who didn't lead.

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