Transparency is only path forward for Sacramento police

Robert Mann Sr., right, addresses community members and reporters with his attorney, John Burris. Joseph Mann, displayed at right in a photo, was killed by Sacramento police in July.
Robert Mann Sr., right, addresses community members and reporters with his attorney, John Burris. Joseph Mann, displayed at right in a photo, was killed by Sacramento police in July. The Associated Press

For more than two months, Sacramento had the chance to be transparent about the fatal shooting of Joseph Mann.

The city could have released video of police chasing the mentally ill, knife-wielding black man down Del Paso Boulevard. Instead, the city waited until The Bee posted surveillance footage of the July incident and then begrudgingly posted three dash-cam videos and two 911 tapes on Facebook.

The city could have been upfront with Mann’s family about how many times he was shot and how long the investigation into the shooting would take. Instead, his brother, backed by enough activists to fill City Hall, had go before the City Council to beg for information.

The city could have been clear about what training officers receive to handle people who are mentally ill. Instead, police still haven’t responded to a Public Records Act request for a copy of the department’s policy.

Indeed, faced with its first, real post-Ferguson test of transparency, our city has failed miserably. The Sacramento Police Department, aided and abetted by a passive City Council, has stonewalled the public at every turn.

Things must change – and the mayor and council members, humbled after watching videos of Mann being shot during a closed session on Tuesday night, say they’re finally ready to demand major reforms from a notoriously recalcitrant police force.

“(We) need to start tackling this issue with more of a sense of urgency,” Mayor Kevin Johnson said.

He acknowledges that the city has fallen far short of the promises it made the community less than two years ago. And he seems to understand that if Sacramento doesn’t balance its duty to be open and honest with the public with its duty to protect itself from litigation, the city could end up like Charlotte, bracing for riots and beating back rumors after the shooting of a black man, Keith Lamont Scott, in a parking lot.

Therefore, in the coming days, an ad-hoc committee appointed by Johnson will discuss a series of reforms.

The steps could include giving the Community Police Commission more authority; creating rules for releasing dash-cam and body-cam video to the public; conducting an inventory of nonlethal weapons, such as stun guns; and coming up with a protocol for city officials to follow after police shootings, including how families should be notified and treated.

However, if the Mann case demands anything, it’s that the city, first and foremost, require additional training for officers on how to deal with people with mental health issues.

One can’t look at the footage of Mann – someone clearly in the midst of a crisis, doing karate chops at invisible enemies – without wondering why police were chasing him in such an aggressive, militant manner, yelling over loudspeakers and blaring sirens from their cruisers. Maybe it’s a matter of training or maybe it’s matter of culture within the department.

Either way, those questions have prompted lawsuits from Mann’s family, who insist police didn’t do enough to de-escalate the situation and, therefore, didn’t have to kill him. Police counter that they do the best they can with what they have.

All Sacramento officers go through a one-day course of Crisis Intervention Training. But that clearly isn’t enough.

The city should follow the lead of police departments that require officers to take at least 40 hours of training. It would be an acknowledgment of the inescapable reality that, for the foreseeable future, police will have to deal with people with mental health issues. That shouldn’t mean a death sentence.

The city also must find a way to add more mental health clinicians to accompany police on calls. Currently, there’s only one, and only for the downtown core. That’s unacceptable.

Sacramento has one more chance to restore the community’s trust in its police force. No more empty promises.