Erika D. Smith

Want justice for Stephon Clark? Anger alone isn't the way to do it

This is Erika D. Smith's take on the Stephon Clark shooting as told to NPR radio host

Sacramento Bee editorial writer Erika D. Smith talks about the police shooting of unarmed black man Stephon Clark on the NPR radio program "On Point," which airs on WBUR in Boston.
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Sacramento Bee editorial writer Erika D. Smith talks about the police shooting of unarmed black man Stephon Clark on the NPR radio program "On Point," which airs on WBUR in Boston.

If there were any doubts about just how angry black folks in Sacramento are over the horrific police shooting of Stephon Clark, there shouldn’t be anymore.

Not after Tuesday night.

Not after Stevante Clark barged into a City Council meeting chanting his brother’s name, jumped on the dais and then a desk, and told the well-meaning mayor to “shut the f--- up.” Not after grown men were brought to disgusted tears and worried mothers to guttural screams.

“That’s unfiltered pain,” someone explained to bewildered council members at one point. Mayor Darrell Steinberg nodded. The blood had long ago drained from his face.

Indeed, it’s a hard thing to bear witness to that kind of pain and anger. It’s a harder thing still to do it and not respond with fear, as a phalanx of white police officers did when they filed into the council chambers and glowered at Stevante, their guns all-too-conspicuously holstered at their sides.

That the police response to an angry unarmed black man — surrounded by friends trying to calm him down and clearly grieving the violent death of his brother — was the tacit threat of even more violence says a lot about where we are in Sacramento, and even more about how far we have to go.

The next steps are crucial.

Protesters rightfully want justice for Stephon Clark, gunned down in his grandmother’s backyard while holding only an iPhone. But will that mission be dominated by the pain and anger we saw on Tuesday night? Or will cooler heads prevail long enough to hold the city and, more importantly, the California Legislature accountable for real reforms?

For the sake of preventing the next black man from becoming a hashtag, I sincerely hope it’s the latter. But that will mean facing some very hard truths.

Sequita Thompson, who will bury her grandson on Thursday, has pinned her hopes on Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert deciding to file criminal charges against both officers and a jury then handing down a pair of convictions.

Who can blame her? The poor woman had to look out of her window and see Clark’s bloody body lying on the ground in the dark. “They didn’t have to kill him like that,” Thompson sobbed at a press conference Monday. “They didn’t have to shoot him that many times.”

Meanwhile, Black Lives Matter has been putting pressure on Schubert, too. And not to be left out, the NAACP has chimed in with Betty Williams of the Sacramento branch threatening to bring in the U.S. Justice Department to conduct an investigation (as if that would ever happen under the Trump administration) and Alice Huffman, president of the statewide branch, declaring: "This is a crime."

What happened to Clark most certainly should be a crime, but it’s probably not one. Not under the straitjacket of two U.S. Supreme Court rulings that make it all but impossible to charge and convict officers for shooting suspects in the line of duty.

Tennessee v. Garner allows that it’s OK to shoot a fleeing suspect when “the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others.” And Graham v. Connor states that "the reasonableness of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.”

These rulings are, in part, why this week Louisiana's attorney general declined to charge two white officers for shooting Alton Sterling outside a convenience store in 2016 — and why so many other officers in so many other cases haven’t been charged or convicted either.

Complicating matters is California’s own use-of-force statute, which states any "officer who has reasonable cause to believe that the person to be arrested has committed a public offense may use reasonable force to effect an arrest, to prevent escape or to overcome resistance.”

By law, as opposed to policies set by individual police departments, de-escalation tactics that protect the sanctity of life are after-thoughts rather than priorities — and it shows.

Instead of giving people in Sacramento false hope and raising expectations for Schubert to file charges that likely will never come, why don’t we talk about how to change state law so it's easier to hold officers accountable for their actions? Because it's possible.

There is nothing, save the money and lobbying of powerful law enforcement groups, stopping the California Legislature from tweaking use of force standards, as the state of Washington just did. There’s also a legislative way to chip away at the California Peace Officers’ Bill of Rights, which has become a major obstacle for police departments trying to fire bad officers, as well as for communities trying to increase transparency, because it requires disciplinary records to be kept secret.

None of this will bring Stephon Clark back. And perhaps none of it will ease the pain felt by his brother, Stevante. But protests alone aren't the answer either. It's time to channel all that anger.

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

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