Editorials

Why will Stephon Clark’s death change nothing? It’s written into California law

Protesters decry police shooting of Stephon Clark

Around 300 people gathered Thursday to march on Sacramento's City Hall to protest the shooting of Stephon Clark by Sacramento Police.
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Around 300 people gathered Thursday to march on Sacramento's City Hall to protest the shooting of Stephon Clark by Sacramento Police.

In the week since Stephon Clark bled to death in his back yard in south Sacramento, we have learned many things about the latest unarmed young black man to be gunned down by police.

We know he was 22, with two children. We know he lived with his grandma. We know he was funny and “liked shoes” and had a family who loved him. We know he had a criminal record dating to his teens, mostly around stealing. We know he was shot at 20 times in the dark after a 911 caller complained that a male in a black hoodie had just broken a truck window. We even know that when the police shouted “gun-gun-gun!” and began firing, it was actually his iPhone that caught the light.

Here’s what we don’t know: Enough about the two Sacramento police officers who killed him. We don’t know if either has been accused of crimes in this state in the past. We don’t know if they have a history of using excessive force here. We don’t know how many times – or even if – either has pulled a gun on or shot a civilian.

And that’s unlikely to change, because, thanks to the muscle of California’s law enforcement lobby, the personnel records of peace officers are completely confidential, only to be discussed in closed-door hearings. The public isn’t privy to information on promotions, discipline, annual appraisals or “any other information the disclosure of which would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

This legislative straitjacket, officially known as the California Peace Officers Bill of Rights, was launched into law, in part, by Gov. Jerry Brown in the final months of his first term. And though it might have made sense then, over time it has hardened into a serious obstacle to meaningful oversight.

Combined with a couple of problematic U.S. Supreme Court rulings on use of force by law enforcement, the Peace Officers Bill of Rights is why the demands for more transparency and accountability that follow every police shooting rarely go anywhere in California. Even if officers are found to have violated department policy in shooting a suspect, troubled cops get special privileges that make it extremely difficult to fire them and almost as difficult for the public to learn whether they’ve been disciplined appropriately.

Brown has spent years championing criminal justice reform, undoing tough-on-crime laws that proved disastrous. He should use what’s left of his political capital to bring the disastrous Peace Officers Bill of Rights back to a human scale and into the 21st century.

The only time this stuff typically comes out is when a judge orders it released as part of a criminal case or lawsuit. Even then, confidentiality agreements often keep it hidden from the taxpaying public if, say, the family has sued but opts for a legal settlement.

This legal framework has made supposedly progressive California the nation’s capital of state-sanctioned police secrecy and a haven for bad cops. It is beyond time for this to change.

The public deserves to know that officers we encounter don’t have a propensity for brutality. We deserve to know that the punishment will serve the greater good if an officer violates policy. Being a cop is a hard and sometimes dangerous job, but it’s much harder when state laws make it impossible for the public to trust good cops. We all benefit from transparency.

Brown has spent years championing criminal justice reform, undoing tough-on-crime laws that proved disastrous. He should use what’s left of his political capital to bring the disastrous Peace Officers Bill of Rights back to a human scale and into the 21st century.

And he should start an examination of state policies and laws that not only allow, but seem to invite lethal force in situations where any reasonable person can see it is not called for. The current U.S. Department of Justice won’t help and police lobbyists may fight him. But one thing we have learned from Stephon Clark’s death and too many like it is that no one – not the victim, not the officers, not the survivors, not the public – goes unscathed in these tragedies.

These stunning documentary images show protesters marching against the shooting of Stephon Clark by Sacramento Police made their way from city hall to Interstate 5 to the doors of Golden 1 Center Thursday..

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