Sacramento can’t wait for Legislature to fix what’s broken after Stephon Clark

Protesters demanding the indictment of two Sacramento police officers who killed Stephon Clark walk by Sacramento City Hall on April 4. Clark, who was unarmed, was shot on March 18.
Protesters demanding the indictment of two Sacramento police officers who killed Stephon Clark walk by Sacramento City Hall on April 4. Clark, who was unarmed, was shot on March 18. AP

Galvanized by the shooting of Stephon Clark, advocates for police reform really want to believe that California has found the political will to change the way officers use deadly force. The reality is, this won't be an easy fight.

Questioned about an Assembly bill that would beef up the state’s outdated and dangerous use-of-force standard, the president of the California Police Chiefs Association on Monday denounced the proposal before the ink was dry, adding that he was “dumbfounded” that its authors, Shirley Weber of San Diego and Kevin McCarty of Sacramento, hadn't consulted him.

“If legislators had come to us prior,” David Swing told The Bee's Alexei Koseff, “it’s unlikely that we would be here today.”

In fact, if legislators had come to them, deep-pocketed law enforcement groups like Swing's would have done what they always do when a modicum of additional police transparency is proposed at the Capitol: put a target on it. This is why as much as California needs a tougher statewide law to discourage cops from shooting first and asking questions later, for the moment, the work of encouraging accountability might have to be done at the local level.

It's good then that the Sacramento City Council isn't waiting around.

At a packed meeting Tuesday night, police Chief Daniel Hahn explained how under the city's current use-of-force policy — with carte blanche from the state statute — two officers chased Clark into his grandparents' backyard last month, and let loose 20 bullets when they thought the young black man was holding a gun. In reality, the father of two only had an iPhone.

Mayor Darrell Steinberg was rightly concerned that the officers didn't try to de-escalate the situation or try non-lethal weapons before pulling their guns. They also didn't appear to identify themselves as police and, perhaps most troubling, they shut off the microphones on their body cameras to have a private discussion as Clark's body lay in the background.

To his credit, Hahn has already created a use-of-force task force and moved to shore up the department’s policy on body cameras. In a memo last Wednesday, rank-and-file officers were told they can no longer deactivate their microphones “until the investigative or enforcement activity involving a member of the public has concluded,“ unless it involves “sensitive circumstances” such as sexual assault.

What must come next is an examination of the city's non-existent foot pursuit policy. The mayor is right that there must be a smarter and safer way to handle a call about someone smashing windows than to chase the suspect in the dark into the backyard of a dense residential neighborhood and then shoot him within seconds.

Some of that is about race, so the City Council must not shy away from a conversation about how well officers are trained to recognize their implicit biases. Sacramento also deserves a police department that requires officers to consider how immediate the danger is before pulling the trigger and whether deadly force is “proportional” to the threat at hand. Both should be spelled out in the city's use-of-force policy.

Far from putting communities at risk by forcing police to second-guess themselves and pull back, as Swing and others from law enforcement groups insist will happen, officers in other cities from Los Angeles to Seattle to Baltimore operate just fine with such policies. A growing body of research indicates that in communities with more restrictive rules governing the use of force, cops are less likely to get shot and so are residents.

This is why Sacramento is right to be proactive, even if the Legislature has to play catch-up. This process can't drag on forever, which the mayor wisely understands.

“I don’t want to sacrifice quality for expediency,” Steinberg told members of The Bee’s editorial board. “But there’s definitely urgency here.”

Too bad the same can't be said for the halls of the Capitol.