Just because a police shooting is legal doesn’t mean it’s right

L. Gracie Phillips, Hannah Williams and Pam Morgan wave signs during a Black Lives Matter protest over the police shooting of Joseph Mann and other black men.
L. Gracie Phillips, Hannah Williams and Pam Morgan wave signs during a Black Lives Matter protest over the police shooting of Joseph Mann and other black men. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

For anyone who has tracked the investigations of police officers involved in questionable shootings, last week’s decision to clear two Sacramento cops in the killing of a homeless man in Del Paso Heights probably came as no surprise. But that doesn’t mean the decision is easy to accept.

Officers John Tennis and Randy Lozoya brazenly chased and then shot Joseph Mann, who was armed with a knife, from at least 15 feet away. Dash-cam footage from that morning in July shows the officers tried – and failed – to hit the 50-year-old black man with their police cruiser, blowing past several other officers already trying to de-escalate the situation.

Mann died in a hail of 14 bullets.

And yet, on Friday, the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office concluded: “Officers Tennis and Lozoya were justified in shooting Mann to defend themselves and each other, to protect the public from imminent harm, and to prevent the escape of a suspected felon who posed a significant threat of death or serious bodily injury to others. Their conduct under these circumstances was lawful.”

In other words, criminal charges won’t be filed against the officers, even though they still could face civil charges, putting taxpayers on the hook, and discipline by the Sacramento Police Department once an internal affairs investigation is completed.

It’s easy to point fingers at District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert for this, as many protesters and community groups have already done. And it’s true there’s an inherent conflict of interest because the DA’s office works closely with police on cases, something that Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, hopes to correct with legislation that would create a more independent legal review process for police shootings.

But the unfortunate truth is that Schubert is on sound legal footing. Credit her, at the very least, with doing more than her predecessor, Jan Scully, who didn’t investigate police shootings at all between 2011 and 2013 due to budget cuts.

Schubert’s office had little choice but to follow deeply flawed federal law, which gives police wide latitude in such cases. The litmus test for deadly force is basically whether an officer fears for his or her life, or for the lives of others. Tennis and Lozoya said they indeed feared for their lives when Mann took “an aggressive stance” on the sidewalk and for the lives of others when they tried to hit Mann with the police cruiser.

Just because something is legal doesn’t make it right, though. And there’s nothing right about the way Tennis and Lozoya behaved. Just like there’s nothing right about the way the city initially refused to release dashcam footage of the shooting to the public, and then failed to disclose that Tennis and Lozoya tried to hit Mann, until audio was uncovered on the video.

More must be done to ensure this case in no way sets a precedent within the Sacramento Police Department.

The Legislature taking a hard look at McCarty’s bill would be a good start. The new requirement for city police officers to receive additional crisis intervention training will help, too. Mann, according to some family members, had been treated for mental illness and he had meth in his system when he died.

But the Police Department must step up, too. For now, Tennis and Lozoya remain on “modified duty.” The department should think long and hard before putting either of them back on patrol.

Also, Mayor Darrell Steinberg says he is monitoring the internal investigation closely, including a review of relevant department policies and procedures. If the conclusion is “those officers were following policies, then it’s long past time to change policy,” he said.

We concur. Too much is at stake.