Erika D. Smith

Joseph Mann case didn’t have to go this way

On Monday morning, Robert Mann stood in the grass of an empty lot on Del Paso Boulevard, trying, as raindrops began to fall, to find the right words to describe his disgust with the “renegade police” who tried to run over his younger brother, Joseph. Failing, they shot him, 14 times.

“This disgraces the oath that you took,” he spat into a bank of microphones.

It’s hard to begrudge Mann his anger. Thanks to enhanced audio from dashcam videos that the Sacramento Police Department never wanted to release in the first place, we now know the despicable details of how Joseph Mann, mentally ill and holding a knife, died in July.

Officers John Tennis and Randy Lozoya tried to hit him with their cruiser – not once but twice. They sped onto the scene, interrupting the efforts of other officers who had been trying to de-escalate the situation.

“I’m going to hit him,” the driver said, according to court papers. “OK, go for it,” his partner responded. When that didn’t work, they chased Mann on foot.

“We’ll get him,” one said.

Within a few seconds, they had fired 18 rounds, striking him 14 times.

So now, in addition to suing the city, the Mann family has taken the extraordinary step of asking the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the case and the Police Department as a whole.

“This was outrageous conduct, and there has to be a price to pay,” their attorney, John Burris, said.

The request isn’t extraordinary because it’s rare. Far from it. The Obama administration has made clear that it’s willing to use its powers to force police departments to change and so the Justice Department gets such missives all the time.

It is extraordinary because it’s Sacramento – a city that prides itself on being liberal, diverse, measured and, above all, nice. Many people never thought we’d be where my hometown of Cleveland is after officers killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was playing with a toy gun in a park. Or Baltimore after the in-custody death of Freddie Gray. Or, most of all, the racially divided city of Ferguson, Mo., after the shooting of Michael Brown.

But here we are. And as I listened to Mann vent to reporters Monday, all I could do was shake my head and lament how so much of this just didn’t have to happen.

Setting aside for a moment whether officers did or did not have to kill Mann (they didn’t), the Sacramento Police Department could have – and should have – been a lot more forthcoming to other city officials and the public about what happened.

Questions about the July 11 shooting arose almost immediately in the community, but Chief Sam Somers Jr. stupidly stuck to the department’s policy and resisted calls to release dashcam videos of the incident to anyone.

It was only after The Bee’s Anita Chabria got hold of surveillance video from a private citizen that the department hastily released footage – and even then no one mentioned the damning verbal exchange between Tennis and Lozoya.

It was only after the Sacramento News & Review reported on the audio from one of the dashcam videos – and The Sacramento Bee did the same – that what really happened to Mann became abundantly clear.

Even the City Council was left in the dark – again, something that really didn’t have to happen. Several members have told The Bee that the first time they heard about police trying to hit Mann was when news reports surfaced Friday. Councilman Allen Warren called that “extremely alarming.”

To suggest the Police Department didn’t know about the audio on the dashcam video is farfetched. And if indeed no one did know, then what does that say about the competency of the department? Or the veracity of the information that has been turned over to the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office to determine whether charges should be filed against Lozoya or Tennis?

The department’s stubborn stonewalling and unnecessary silence also raises some serious questions about the culture of the city’s police.

Tennis and Lozoya had to be pretty comfortable in that culture to talk about hitting a mentally ill man when they knew a camera was rolling. And if they felt that comfortable, what other bombs are in hidden dashcam videos from other cases that the department won’t release to the public?

Same with the officers the department employs. Tennis, we now know – and not because the Police Department has been forthcoming – has been involved with at least two cases alleging excessive force. The first one, in 1997, led to a man’s death from a chokehold. The second one, in which Tennis was accused of false arrest or imprisonment, cost the city $10,000 in a settlement.

If all of this is true, why is he still on the force, on “modified duty” after the Mann shooting? And is he truly only one bad apple, or are the department’s policies and procedures so porous and the penalties for violating them so inconsistent that many officers engage in questionable behavior?

Because of the revelations about the Mann case, we now have to ask these questions.

Understandably unnerved, Mayor Kevin Johnson and the City Council have vowed to force the Police Department to implement a series of reforms. Among them, pushing additional training for officers on dealing with mentally ill suspects and requiring dashcam videos to be released in a timely manner. The council also is contemplating a policy that would authorize deadly force only when there’s an immediate threat and the shooting is “unavoidable to protect life.” That should have been the policy all along.

The political push for change is valuable, and it’s one that Mayor-elect Darrell Steinberg has vowed to continue. But I’m afraid it could prove to be too little, too late.

If the Justice Department does indeed decide to investigate the Mann case and the Police Department as a whole, it could find, heaven forbid, that Sacramento officers regularly violate people’s civil rights.

If that happens and if the Justice Department pushes the city into a consent decree to reform the department under the oversight of a federal monitor, taxpayers can expect to pay through the nose to fix it.

As of last year, there were more than 20 police forces under consent decree. Some cities have had to raise taxes to cover the cost. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake says she expects her city to fork over between $5 million and $10 million. Cleveland is on the hook for about $11 million.

Knowing that Sacramento is moving in the right direction, implementing reforms, some might question why we need the Justice Department’s involvement at all. It certainly would be embarrassing.

“We have to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again,” said Stephen Webb, president of the Sacramento chapter of the NAACP. “Unfortunately, it’s going to cost the city some money, but that’s the way these things tend to go.”

Or as the Mann family’s attorney, Burris, put it, “trust but verify.” Consent decrees are court orders, not promises.

This is what happens when public trust in a police department is edging toward rock bottom. That, too, didn’t have to happen.

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, @Erika_D_Smith

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