Outrage over the police shooting of Stephon Clark is not likely to go away soon, but Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn has been smart to seek transparency. On Tuesday, he brought in California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to provide independent oversight of the investigation into the unarmed black man’s death. It was the right call.
Clark was shot to death within seconds of being chased in into his grandparents’ backyard earlier this month by two Sacramento police officers who appeared not to identify themselves. Since then, distrust has been in the air, from Clark’s family announcing it would hire its own medical examiner to do an independent autopsy to attacks by Black Lives Matter and others on Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert.
Such concerns are neither uncommon nor unfounded with officer-involved shootings. Prosecutors work side by side with local law enforcement, and civil rights advocates for years have complained that having district attorneys investigate use of force cases carries with it an inherent conflict of interest.
Bringing in Becerra will go a long way toward rebuilding public trust, and will help ensure unbiased scrutiny of the case up front. The attorney general also has pledged to examine the police department’s policies and procedures, as a whole, another critical piece of any solution.
“A greater goal has to be preventing incidents like this in the future,” Becerra said at a news conference, flanked by Hahn, Mayor Darrell Steinberg and City Council members. “We have to dig deep to see what that takes.”
In the past, cities could rely on the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice to act as a check and balance on law enforcement. Lately, that duty has fallen to state lawmakers, as the Trump administration has made it clear it has no interest in the disproportionate killings of black men by police.
Shamefully, California’s Legislature has shown it can’t be relied on either. In 2015 and 2017, Sacramento Assemblyman Kevin McCarty introduced legislation that would have given the state attorney general’s office more oversight in investigations of officer-involved shootings. Both bills died in committee, killed by powerful law enforcement groups, with minimal protest from then-Attorney General and now Sen. Kamala Harris.
McCarty plans to reintroduce the bill this year. Perhaps Becerra will show more interest. Given the law on police shootings, doing right by the public isn’t easy. Perhaps Sacramento’s approach can be a model in California.