Fare check at downtown Sacramento light rail stop goes out of control
Golden Lee Smith, whose scuffle with police officers last week at a Sacramento light rail station went viral on video, said in a jailhouse interview he was not trying to flee police and that officers had no good reason to arrest him.
Several civil rights attorneys said the incident adds fodder to the ongoing national debate over police stops that escalate into violence.
Smith, 34, a parolee, is being held on $500,000 bail in the county jail on felony charges of battery on an officer and resisting arrest. He was shocked with a Taser stun gun during the Oct. 26 incident.
Police said they called for Smith to stop after he got off a train at the 13th Street station so they could check for a rail ticket. Smith instead walked to the other side of the station before stopping.
Officers checked his rail pass, then attempted to issue him a citation on delaying or evading police. Smith refused to sign the citation, and a scuffle broke out as police tried to handcuff him.
Smith, who was released from prison this year on an assault conviction, said he walked away because he initially did not hear the officers. He said he stopped across the tracks to await a transfer train. He refused to sign the citation on delaying the police, he said, because he hadn’t done anything wrong. He accused the officers of approaching him in an angry manner.
“It just didn’t make no sense,” he said Thursday. “I didn’t get a chance to understand what I was signing it for.”
Police said Smith punched two officers in the face. RT videos show Smith twisting and flailing as officers try to subdue him. His girlfriend, Stacey Bledsoe, 48, was arrested as well on a charge of resisting arrest. A bystander also shot a cellphone video and posted it online.
Sacramento Regional Transit security chief Capt. Norm Leong said his officers have been cracking down on fare evaders recently in response to criticism from business owners and paying passengers that too many ticketless riders are going unchecked, making the system feel unsafe.
Agency officials recently hired more than two dozen fare checkers and ordered them, along with transit police, to check as many passengers for tickets as possible.
Leong said the Smith incident had nothing to do with race or socioeconomics. Officers sometimes cite people on Penal Code Section 148, delaying or resisting officers, Leong said. It’s typically done at officers’ discretion.
“We use it when we need to, not all the time, when someone doesn’t listen to a lawful order,” Leong said. “When someone walks away from transit agents checking for fare, it becomes a question of how far do you have to follow someone before they comply with you.”
Leong said officers believed Smith was avoiding them. He said the incident is being reviewed internally. Reviewers look at whether the officers followed procedures and what other options the officers had.
City police leaders announced this week that they are sending some staff members to training on how to handle and de-escalate complex incidents, such as those involving mentally ill suspects. Police have come under criticism for the shootings earlier this year of two men carrying knives who did not respond to police calls to drop the weapons. Families of both men said they suffered from mental illness.
The city also has hired a professional facilitator to conduct four public discussions on police reforms.
Smith, speaking Thursday in jail, said he suffers from anxiety and depression. He said he was headed to college that afternoon. He reacted physically when police moved to handcuff him, he said, because he thought they were going to break his arm or otherwise harm him physically.
He previously served 2 1/2 years in prison for assaulting a man in San Jose. He recently had been staying with his mother in Rancho Cordova. Cosumnes River College officials confirmed he is enrolled in classes there.
Vallejo-based attorney Claire White, vice president of the National Lawyers Guild, a legal rights organization, said the Smith incident appears to be one of a trend of interactions between police and citizens that escalate unnecessarily.
“The police need more cultural competency with people who experience homelessness, and people of color,” White said. “Instead, they escalate situations by trying to dominate and exercise a level of authority that is unnecessary.”
Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, an ACLU official contacted by The Bee, did not speak about Smith’s case directly, but said her agency contends that racial profiling in California causes “people to get stopped when they did nothing wrong.”