Right up until The Bee published surveillance video it obtained of the fatal police shooting of Joseph Mann, police officials were refusing to share the video and 911 tapes with Mann’s family or the public.
The Bee obtained and published video early Tuesday afternoon providing a closer view of Mann as police converged on him, shooting him 14 times. Previous witness video published by The Bee and other media had been taken from a distance and was not clear. Some City Council members, and Mann’s family, pushed for access to the same video viewed by investigators.
Almost immediately after our publication, Sacramento Police Department Chief Sam Somers Jr. called a press conference, at which he released two 911 tapes from the incident, three police vehicle dash-cam videos and a copy of the same security video obtained earlier by The Bee. He called the release “unprecedented” because of “all the information out there.” The only new information was the video obtained and published by The Bee.
City Hall reporter Anita Chabria worked for weeks to obtain a clear video of the shooting. She knocked on doors in the neighborhood, interviewed residents, and worked her sources. She also filed a Public Records Act request seeking all camera footage. City and police officials repeatedly told her they would not allow access to the video. The citizen who eventually provided the telling video to The Bee asked for anonymity to avoid official backlash.
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“Without her doggedly trying to track down this video, there would have been no video released, no dash cam, no 911” recordings, City Editor Kevin Yamamura said of the city response to the video publication.
Mary Lynne Vellinga, senior editor for local news, said “the history in this region is that nobody ever releases these videos unless they are forced” by lawsuits.
We believe the video was integral information for this ongoing news story. Family members and their supporters have been sharply critical of police for not working to calm Mann, whom they described as mentally ill. He was armed with a knife and acting erratically in the minutes before the shooting. A police news release described Mann as running toward an officer’s vehicle with the knife and then turning back toward the officers before they shot him. We wanted video so that the public could see for itself what led to the shooting.
The history in this region is that nobody ever releases these videos unless they are forced
Mary Lynne Vellinga, Bee senior editor for local news
Surveillance and witness video is everywhere today – whether it is the aftermath of last weekend’s bombing in New York that injured dozens or the live-stream video shared widely on Facebook of the police shooting of a St. Paul, Minn., man, Philando Castile, in July. It is widely credited for exposing police shootings of innocent people, particularly black men like Castile. It has fed a powerful and growing movement, Black Lives Matter, which grew out of the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida and the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
Raw and witness video gives the public a powerful tool to hold leaders, including law enforcement, accountable for their actions. Not surprisingly, police are reluctant to make public the video from officer body cameras or dash cameras. Their lobbyists successfully fought California legislative efforts this year to open investigative records on police shootings and misconduct.
“Rank-and-file cops are in the streets and know what is going to be best, not only for officers, but for the communities that we serve and protect,” Mike Durant, president of the Peace Officers Research Association of California, told Bee reporter Alexei Koseff in June as he talked about efforts to kill proposed legislation.
Yet transparency and accountability are important values to ensure public trust.
Consider the comments of Mann’s brother, Robert Mann, after the family finally was able to view additional video this week. He said in a press conference that he asked homicide detectives last summer what happened to his brother.
“They lied flat out to me and told me my brother was aggressive, my brother was threatening police officers, he was coming at them and that they (police) had no time to make any decisions other than to shoot my brother,” Robert said.
“You’ve all seen the video. It’s very clear that they had plenty of time to use other means to deal with my brother, who was mentally ill. These officers need to be held accountable … . We need justice for my brother.”
These officers need to be held accountable… We need justice for my brother
Robert Mann, speaking of his brother’s death from a police shooting
Robert Mann criticized the city for releasing the new video and 911 tapes without sharing them first with family. And Mann family attorney Mark Harris criticized The Bee for “rushing to distribute and disseminate without a conscience” the video.
The Bee’s role is different from that of city officials or police. Our job is to inform as we push for transparency and work to hold the powerful accountable. Our ethics policy discourages outside review of content before we publish, but we also want to be as sensitive as possible to grieving families.
While The Bee has pushed officials for public release of all video from this shooting, we did not want to surprise the Mann family with publication. Chabria talked with Robert Mann to ensure the family was aware we were about to publish a new video of the shooting. She described what the video showed. And she sent him a link as soon as the video was published.
We wanted to publish the video before the Sacramento City Council met again, behind closed doors, to talk about whether the family, and public, should be allowed to see it.
Chabria said police officials kept from public view some video and audio obtained in the shooting investigation. And The Bee has yet to receive a copy of the Police Department’s policy guiding its response to situations involving the mentally ill.
We requested it more than three weeks ago, and officials say they likely won’t deliver it until Oct. 7, a violation of the spirit of California’s public records act. Officials say they need time to redact the document. Why would any of this policy be withheld from the public?
Police officials have chosen secrecy in the face of substantial community scrutiny and demands by the Mann family and others for change. Mayor Kevin Johnson has promised urgent action. Chabria and others at The Bee will continue to press for information that holds our public officials accountable for their promised reform.
This column was edited September 26 to correct the year in which Trayvon Martin was killed.