Marcos Bretón

Why is the Sac PD so white? It’s a long story

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson speaks before police Chief Sam Somers (nearest Johnson) announces the arrest of Keymontae Lindsey, 16, on suspicion of killing Grant High football plater Jaulon Clavo on Nov. 13, 2015.
Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson speaks before police Chief Sam Somers (nearest Johnson) announces the arrest of Keymontae Lindsey, 16, on suspicion of killing Grant High football plater Jaulon Clavo on Nov. 13, 2015. The Sacramento Bee

I had to laugh at the recent audit showing the Sacramento Police Department did not reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of the community it serves.

Stop the presses.

Anyone with eyes can see that the command staff and most street cops in Sacramento are white. One statistic best encapsulates why this is a story: While only 35 percent of city residents are white, 76 percent of uniformed cops are.

As the Bee’s Ryan Lillis reported: “Of the department’s 127-member command staff, 101 of those commanders – or 80 percent – are white, according to the audit. … An examination of police salaries determined that 27 of the 37 officers making more than $120,000 a year are white.”

No audit commissioned by city politicians is going to change this reality anytime soon. To truly upend the culture within Sacramento’s police ranks, voters would have to elect a leader with more guts than any city politician has shown in the past 20 years.

But Darrell Steinberg’s recent victory at the polls creates the possibility of badly needed civilian oversight of hiring and promotional practices within the ranks of Sacramento PD.

Steinberg landed approximately 43,000 votes and prevailed in almost all city neighborhoods when he was elected mayor last week. That kind of popularity rivals the public support enjoyed by the late Joe Serna Jr., mayor for most of the 1990s, and the last city leader to use his electoral clout to try to reform the city Police Department.

Serna did so by recruiting Arturo Venegas to be not only the first Latino chief of Sacramento PD, but the first person of color. It happened in 1993, little more than 20 years ago, but that move was furiously opposed by some old-time cops as if they – and their department – were still frozen in the 1970s. They were; Serna knew it, and he didn’t care about taking on a quintessential good-old-boy’s network.

Serna’s aim was to bring racial and ethnic diversity to Sacramento PD, as well as making it more professional and responsive to the community. Today, Sacramento PD is a very good department in many respects. But it is not a diverse one, mirroring a nationwide trend in law enforcement.

Of the 50 largest police departments in America, only one – Atlanta – is as diverse as the community it serves, according to a 2015 analysis by the Center for Public Integrity, the Pulitzer Prize-winning nonprofit news organization.

Largely white police departments clashing with communities of color was a national concern long before Ferguson, Mo., exploded into rioting and violence two summers ago after Darren Wilson, a white Ferguson police officer, shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teenager.

The more police departments haven’t changed in nearly 50 years, the more things have remained the same. In 1968, the Kerner Commission – a national advisory board to President Lyndon Johnson – found that in many cities, an “abrasive relationship between police and the minority communities has been a major – and explosive – source of grievance, tension and disorder.”

That we’re still talking about these issues, and that I’ve been writing about them over my 30-year journalism career, is shameful.

Sacramento has been fortunate to be spared from riots and civil disobedience aimed at police so far. But mistrust between communities of color and Sac PD does exist and does impede investigations.

The most glaring example occurred last year when J.J. Clavo, a Grant High School football player, was shot and killed in broad daylight. Few witnesses would cooperate with police. Civic leaders in Del Paso Heights told Sacramento police investigators that their community didn’t trust them. The fact that Sac PD lacks a high-ranking African American officer was and is a bone of contention.

It’s a complicated issue, to be sure. Some good police officers have tried hard to break down the mistrust of Sac PD in the community. The culture of “no snitching” in Sacramento’s most dangerous neighborhoods, where residents are taught almost from birth to not cooperate with police for fear of reprisals from police suspects, will not change solely because of a more diverse Police Department.

But a more diverse Police Department likely would have helped the investigators on the Clavo case. Some community leaders brought in Daniel Hahn, Roseville’s African American police chief, to talk to potential witnesses and encourage them to cooperate in the investigation.

Hahn had come up through the ranks in Sacramento and was a well-regarded captain before moving on to Roseville. People in Del Paso Heights felt comfortable with Hahn and liked him, but as Roseville’s chief he has no authority in Sacramento. Though a suspect in the Clavo case was arrested, accessories to the crime remain at large – protected by a lack of cooperation with police.

The recession froze hiring for the Sac PD until recent years. Now that it’s adding officers again, the department has worked to recruit within the African American and Latino communities – even sending recruiters to the East Coast to talk to students at traditionally African American colleges.

Laudable efforts, to be sure. But here’s the real problem. As good as Sacramento PD is in many respects – professionalism, superior training, commitment to community policing – local law enforcement leaders are hypersensitive and resistant to criticism.

A case in point was when Mayor Kevin Johnson spoke out after a grand jury did not indict Wilson, the Ferguson officer who shot and killed Michael Brown.

“It’s a sad day in America,” Johnson said. He said the lack of an indictment of Wilson “just didn’t feel right.” The Sacramento police union took offense, and Johnson was criticized from various quarters of Sacramento’s law enforcement community. Good people literally closed ranks.

What Johnson said was absolutely right. As an African American mayor, and the leader of the National Conference of Mayors at the time, it was Johnson’s duty to speak out.

But did the police union see it that way? Not a chance. Apologies were demanded. Johnson had to say he was sorry people had taken offense. Mind you, this was the same union that once fought Venegas at every turn as he tried to bring diversity to Sacramento PD.

People forget, but two Sacramento senior officers sued Venegas, alleging that they were discriminated against for being white. A federal jury ruled in favor of the white officers. One of the officers won a $300,000 settlement. The city had to cover his $500,000 legal fees as well.

That was in 1999. Serna died that year of cancer. Diversity within the police ranks ceased to be a front-burner issue.

After reading the recent audit, Councilman Rick Jennings said the numbers gave him a “sickening feeling in his stomach.” It gave me one, too. But my hope is that city leaders, including mayor-elect Steinberg, will have the stomach to continue to address the lack of diversity in our Police Department and tackle an issue that’s been around for far too long.

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