Sacramento police are flirting with disaster

Sacramento police officers stand guard during a demonstration at the Capitol in June.
Sacramento police officers stand guard during a demonstration at the Capitol in June. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Sacramento isn’t Ferguson, but our city’s Police Department has a problem – one that, without a serious intervention, is a recipe for disaster.

The ingredients are all here. Anger, fear and despair. A lack of transparency and waning public trust.

In south Sacramento, people have lost so much faith in the Police Department that they’ve taken the extraordinarily dangerous step of arming themselves, convinced that officers aren’t doing enough to stop a string of robberies targeting Asians.

“We need to take security into our own hands,” Xin Yang told The Bee. “If not, who will protect us?”

On Tuesday, dozens of black residents packed City Hall to demand the department release video from dash cameras to the public. Right now, families who’ve lost loved ones to bullets fired by officers don’t learn the details of what happened for months.

Damian Flenaugh, whose brother, Dazion, was killed by police in April, wore his frustration on his face as he addressed the mayor and City Council.

“My brother – I don’t even know how many times he was shot. That’s how little information we got,” he said. “We didn’t even get to see my brother before we buried him. They said he was too decomposed.”

These are real problems that can’t be ignored, half-stepped or deflected with more promises for community meetings to come up with yet another plan. There’s no amount of placating that will fix this. Instead, what’s needed is real transparency and an acknowledgment from police that, like the mayor and City Council, they are indeed accountable to the public.

There are many ways to go about this. Creating a clear and consistent policy for releasing footage from police cameras is a good start. So is giving the toothless Sacramento Community Police Commission more power to investigate officers. An easier option would be making existing policies, such as how officers engage people who are mentally ill, public.

Yet the department has resisted such transparency at every turn, even insulting The Bee by responding to a Public Records Act request for a policy on using cameras with four pages of redacted paragraphs. These things shouldn’t be a secret.

Change could come with Mayor-elect Darrell Steinberg. He agrees that major reforms are needed (as are new officers). His ability to implement them should be easier given the retirement of police Chief Sam Somers Jr. and the opening for a city manager.

Now is the time for Sacramento to learn from Ferguson, from Baton Rouge and from countless other cities that have seen their streets become racially charged war zones after police shootings. Be transparent. Be accountable. Be predictable. Nothing else will do.