A flawed protector: Sacramento officer’s personal troubles take center stage in deadly police shooting of Joseph Mann

Lawyers say cop who shot mentally impaired man was unfit for duty

An earlier version of this story appeared at www.newsreview.com/sacramento/pageburner.

Attorneys for a mentally troubled man gunned down by police last month say one of the officers who shot him was plagued by his own demons.

The veteran officer, identified by the Sacramento Police Department and court documents as John C. Tennis, was one of two police officers who shot Joseph Mann at least 16 times during a July 11 encounter in north Sacramento, according to a federal lawsuit, after police received reports of an armed subject acting erratically.

Mann’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit in federal court against Tennis, fellow Officer Randy Lozoya, the Sacramento Police Department and the city, and is seeking an unspecified monetary amount in damages as well as an admission of wrongdoing.

According to an amended federal complaint filed last week, Tennis was temporarily stripped of his ability to carry a firearm in 2011, when an El Dorado County judge granted his then-wife’s restraining order request based on her allegations of domestic violence and child abuse. SN&R also uncovered two civil complaints against Tennis from earlier in his career, one of which alleged excessive force.

Civil-rights attorney John L. Burris revealed the new information during an August 11 press conference outside the federal courthouse in Sacramento. Flanked by his co-counsels and Mann’s family members, Burris insisted the restraining order and a later internal affairs investigation into Tennis’ alleged alcohol abuse made the officer unfit for duty and should have resulted in his termination prior to his confronting Mann that summer morning on a patch of sidewalk between a saloon and tattoo parlor on Del Paso Boulevard.

“That’s the tragedy of this,” Burris told reporters. “This officer and the department’s conduct toward him has contributed to the death of this man, and it shouldn’t have happened.”

Burris used the press conference to renew his calls for the police department to release any video evidence documenting the events that ended the life of Mann, whose mental state spiraled following the 2011 death of his mother, his family said.

So far, one shaky cellphone video recorded by a bystander has surfaced. Covering the two minutes leading up to Mann’s death, it depicts Mann standing in the middle of the street, bending at the waist and karate-chopping the air. Two patrol SUVs face him, their passenger doors open with officers standing behind them and pointing their guns. Mann turns and walks to the sidewalk as the SUVs trail behind. Officers on foot quickly close the distance between them and Mann. The cellphone camera drops as a rapid succession of gunshots ring out.

Mann’s family and their attorneys claim the video shows Mann was unarmed at the time of his killing, but it’s difficult to make out from the jittery, distant footage. But the video also doesn’t support the police’s claim that Mann turned aggressively toward officers before they opened fire.

“They brutally murdered my brother, and they need to be held accountable,” said Robert Mann, who told SN&R he wanted criminal charges brought against the officers.

Burris said he didn’t know if the officers involved in the shooting were outfitted with body cameras. Funding was secured late last year for a pilot program that could provide the department with 400 body cameras, seperate city documents show. Burris and his co-counsels say they are interested in any and all footage, as patrol cars are equipped with dashboard digital recorders and a stopped light-rail train may have also captured some of the incident.

Burris said the police department’s intransigence to releasing footage is hurting its credibility. “I’ve turned down cases after I’ve seen the video,” he said. “There’s no reason not to let the family see the video.”

A police spokesman previously told SN&R the department’s policy prevented it from releasing video evidence to the public, which includes the relatives of victims of police shootings.

But the central revelation from last week’s press conference had to do with Tennis, a 25-year veteran of the department whose dissolved marriage has become a matter of public discourse.

During a 2011 divorce proceeding, Tennis faced allegations of violence and child abuse, and was served with a temporary restraining order that prohibited him from possessing a firearm or ammunition, the amended federal complaint states.

Tennis only got his gun back after he and his department asked El Dorado Superior Court Judge Kenneth Melikian to grant Tennis an exemption so he could continue his employment as a Sacramento police officer, documents show.

“The Sacramento Police Department is unable to re-assign Officer Tennis to another position where a firearm is unnecessary,” a letter signed by then-Deputy Chief Sam Somers, the police chief, says in support of Tennis’ request.

Burris said Tennis shouldn’t have been allowed back on the force, certainly not with a gun, after being served with a restraining order. “There was a reason the judge [ordered] that he could not have a gun,” Burris said. “He can’t have a gun at home, but he can have one on the street. … That should not happen.”

Restraining orders are generally considered in two phases, said John E.B. Myers, a professor at the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law. First, a petitioner requests what’s called an ex-parte temporary restraining order, or TRO. That’s just paperwork in which the judge decides whether the allegations are serious enough to support the initial order until an evidentiary hearing can be held with both sides present. That’s what Tennis received, and the order was ultimately lifted, an attorney for the Mann family confirmed.

Rick Braziel, the former Sacramento police chief, who now serves as inspector general over the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, said that most law enforcement agencies, including Sacramento’s, will terminate employees whose restraining orders are upheld on violent grounds.

“By John Tennis getting his weapon back, the judge would have had to determine that there was no cause for domestic violence,” Braziel said. “Otherwise, John Tennis would have been fired.”

The police department released a lengthy statement following the August 11 press conference, essentially saying it wouldn’t comment on the ongoing lawsuit.

Following announcement of the lawsuit, SN&R found two civil cases in which Tennis was named as a co-defendant. Both cases were filed in Sacramento Superior Court, though few other details were available.

In 1998, Tennis was one of seven police officers named as a defendant in a civil complaint filed on behalf of 11 plaintiffs, six of whom shared the same last name. The circumstances of the case and its resolution were not immediately available.

Two years later, Tennis was sued again, this time with one other officer. The plaintiff’s attorney in the case, Roosevelt O’Neal Jr., told SN&R he believed the lawsuit accused the officers of using unreasonable force against his client, Lovell Sturgis Brown, a registered sex offender. O’Neal said he could no longer recall the details of the lawsuit, but thought it resolved in a settlement.

Like Mann, Brown is African-American.

Meanwhile, two years after Tennis’ brush with family court, in 2013, he was in trouble again, this time with the department. According to a document provided by Burris’ law firm, the Sacramento Police Officers Association settled an internal affairs disciplinary case against Tennis with the city, which allowed him to avoid a one-week suspension by attending classes and researching alcoholism. As part of the agreement, Tennis was required to read the books Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement and Who Helps the Helper?, the settlement document states.