The footage is graphic and profoundly disturbing: Two police officers chase a suspected car burglar in the dark into a backyard in south Sacramento, take cover behind a corner and yell, “Show me your hands! Stop!”
They don’t identify themselves as police. They’re panting. One yells, “Show me your hands! Gun!” Then, “Show me your hands! Gun-gun-gun!” In seconds, they fire 20 rounds and Stephon Clark lies dead, hit eight times, mostly from behind. As their body cams roll, it becomes clear the “gun” is a cellphone. “Hey, mute,” a voice says, and they shut off their mics.
‘If you don’t give officers that benefit of the doubt, if you don’t give them that shield, you’re not going to have any officers out there.’
The video has shocked viewers worldwide. Yet many law enforcement and criminal justice experts say it is unlikely the officers will be criminally charged in Clark’s killing. In fact, they say, it’s possible they won’t even be disciplined.
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In an interview with The Sacramento Bee editorial board, Ed Obayashi, a working cop and legal adviser in Plumas County and an expert in officer-involved shooting investigations, explained the standards for use of deadly force, and what typically happens in cases like the Clark shooting. The following is a summary of his perspective, one that reflects the current legal and law enforcement doctrine that Obayashi explains this way: “If you don’t give officers that benefit of the doubt, if you don’t give them that shield, you’re not going to have any officers out there.”
How do these investigations work?
There will be two separate and distinct investigations. One will be criminal, by the District Attorney with the Attorney General overseeing it, to determine whether the shooting was legally justified. And one will be administrative, to determine whether the officers followed departmental policy. The criminal one proceeds immediately. Often the department will delay the administrative one until the criminal one is over, after which the evidence is turned over to internal affairs.
How long will it take?
Many months. The video alone will have to be processed and slowed down and dissected frame by frame. Investigators will canvass the neighborhood again. They’ll review the evidence. And then the department’s investigation will also be detailed. They’ll go back days: How much sleep did the officers get? They’ll go through their training records. What tactical training did they receive?
Will they be criminally charged?
The legal threshold is whether the officers reasonably believed their lives were in danger at that moment, and that’s from an officer’s viewpoint, not someone’s who doesn’t have the training an officer does.
But not identifying themselves as police…?
We don’t know if there was some preliminary indication. Also, these officers were chasing this individual. There’s a police helicopter. The fact that he’s fleeing is indicative of a guilty mind, from a legal standpoint.
Still, 20 shots fired?
That’s not an unusual number of rounds to be discharged under the circumstances. You may say it’s just a property crime. But officers are taught from Day One that if someone is committing this type of felony, you have to assume they’re armed. Are burglars frequently armed? Yes. Also they’re chasing him, they see a shiny object and he’s trying to break into a residence at night.
And the muted mics?
It wouldn’t have to be for a nefarious purpose. It could just have been, “Are you OK? Do you want me to call your wife?” Or something confidential the officer doesn’t feel should be be broadcast and misinterpreted. They know they’re being recorded. The public thinks they have something to hide, but that’s not unusual to a trained eye.
So no consequences?
Based on what I’m seeing, the officers appear to have met the standards of self defense. But cops are human and the public is generally uninformed. This will be with them for the rest of their lives.