By Jose A. Del Real, March 28, 2018
SACRAMENTO — Two police officers, 10 minutes, 20 bullets. Another young black man dead, this time in his grandmother’s backyard in California’s capital.
In the 10 days since Stephon Clark, 22, was fatally shot by officers investigating a vandalism complaint in his south Sacramento neighborhood, protesters have stormed City Hall and taken to the streets in anger. In a city that is mostly white and Latino, the killing, they say, is a sign of a police force that treats black residents with disdain and unfairly targets their neighborhoods.
Questions about excessive force hover over the case. A police helicopter was sent to a routine call. Officers fired 20 times at Mr. Clark. The police have also been accused of not giving Mr. Clark, who was unarmed, enough time to put his hands up and of waiting too long to call for medical help.
Adding to the scrutiny is the fact that the police muted their body cameras in the minutes after the shooting and can be seen on camera talking animatedly while Mr. Clark lay dead on the ground.
The shooting has reignited the kind of protests against police killings that spread over the past several years in cities like Ferguson, Mo.; Baton Rouge, La.; and Milwaukee. Last week, protesters here shut down traffic on Interstate 5 and blocked the doors to a Sacramento Kings basketball game.
“Everybody knows that we’re getting killed regularly out here; that’s the buildup to this,” said Tanya Faison, who founded the local chapter of Black Lives Matter.
The mood was decidedly hopeful in August, when Daniel Hahn took over the Police Department as the first black police chief. Mr. Hahn defended his department in an interview on Wednesday and said that every officer had undergone training to discourage race-based discrimination, as well as de-escalation training. Though he said he could not discuss the case, he acknowledged: “Race permeates everything we do in our country. To think anything else would be naïve.”
Mr. Hahn said he had asked Xavier Becerra, the California attorney general, for help with the case. Mr. Becerra announced on Tuesday that the state’s Justice Department would join the investigation.
The case began with a report of property damage. On the evening of March 18, two officers from the Sacramento Police Department were dispatched to investigate a complaint that someone was breaking vehicle windows.
A helicopter from the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department was also hovering over the scene looking for a potential suspect when it identified a man with a crowbar heading toward a nearby house.
A few minutes after responding to the call, with the apparent guidance from the sheriff’s helicopter, the city police officers spotted Mr. Clark, who they said ran from them. They followed him into the backyard and ordered him to show his hands, police video shows. Seconds later, in the dark, one officer shouted, “gun, gun, gun, gun!” and they shot 20 times at Mr. Clark. The officers believed Mr. Clark had a weapon and opened fire “fearing for their lives,” according to a police statement.
The entire encounter lasted roughly 10 minutes. The officers looked for a gun but all they found was a cellphone.
Minutes later more officers arrived and the team handcuffed Mr. Clark, who lay mortally wounded.
As other officers arrived, the two involved in the shooting muted the audio feeds to their body cameras. One of the officers was black and the other was white. They are both on paid leave, Mr. Hahn said.
Timothy Davis, president of the Sacramento Police Officers Association, called the event a tragedy and voiced his support for the officers involved. “No police officer ever wants to have to take a life,” Mr. Davis said. “Our officers are out there serving this community, leaving their family behind to serve this community.”
It remains unclear if the decision to mute the cameras went against official protocol, but the act alone has prompted intense suspicion. The Clark family’s lawyer, Benjamin Crump, said that the move “reeks of impropriety” and that the Police Department was trying to cover something up. Mr. Crump represented the families of Trayvon Martin, who was shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer in 2012, and Michael Brown, killed by the police in Ferguson two years later.
Mr. Hahn said that the department could not explain why the officers muted their cameras, but that the officers’s actions were under investigation. The department had been considering banning muting cameras outright before Mr. Clark was shot, he said.
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“In their training they are told a couple different instances when they can mute their body cameras. The bigger ongoing question that we are already looking into and revising our policy is: Are those reasons acceptable?” Mr. Hahn said. “Should we continue to allow people to mute those cameras for those reasons?”
Dozens attended the wake for Mr. Clark on Wednesday and hundreds are expected to attend his funeral on Thursday, including activists from outside the city and from the Black Lives Matters movement, including the Rev. Al Sharpton. More vigils and protests are planned in cities across the country in the coming days.
Anger over Mr. Clark’s death has not let up in the days since the shooting. For four hours on Tuesday night hundreds of residents gathered at a Sacramento City Council meeting to complain that Mr. Clark’s death was just the latest in a long list of injustices against the black residents.
Late last year, a young black man was punched by a county police officer repeatedly during a jaywalking stop. Video of the attack attracted widespread attention on social media and the county later settled a lawsuit in response.
On Tuesday, speakers cried as they described the poverty and increasing income inequality between wealthy parts of Sacramento and its poorer neighborhoods.
Just beyond the council chamber’s doors, angry protesters took over City Hall’s main lobby and in one instance skirmished with police officers. “You shoot us down, we shut you down!” they chanted. Later, they blocked entry to another Sacramento Kings game.
Ms. Faison said the body-camera video of Mr. Clark’s death, which the police released in the days after the shooting, painted a damning portrait of the police.
“That’s just disgusting, honestly. That video. I don’t even know. I feel like they started shooting before they even looked at him. It looked like they were coming around the corner shooting and he was walking toward them to see what the noise was,” she said. “Why would you fly a helicopter for someone breaking into cars?”
Mayor Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento, who has received the brunt of the criticism and led the council meeting, said in an interview Wednesday that he was sympathetic to the complaints and that people of color in Sacramento have genuine grievances about the police.
“Regardless of the outcome of the investigation, which will be based on the current laws and the current policies and the current training, what happened here, the outcome, was plain wrong,” he said. “A 22-year-old man should not have died in this way.”
Jose A. Del Real, March 28, 2018, NYTimes, “20 Shots in Sacramento: Stephon Clark Killing Reignites a Furor”, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/28/us/sacramento-stephon-clark.html