Confessions of a killer cop
John Tennis breaks his silence after being fired for fatal encounter with Joseph Mann
Dressed in a faded Superman t-shirt that flatters his muscular torso, John Tennis points out the spot where he and his partner shot and killed Joseph Mann on a steamy summer morning last year.
It’s a crisp day in December along a resilient commercial stretch of North Sacramento, where unassuming bars and barbershops reside under washed-out signs, but Tennis tugs at his collar like a man who’s feeling the heat.
For more than a quarter of a century, Tennis patrolled this neighborhood for the Sacramento Police Department. In October, his career ended ignominiously. The 56-year-old former patrolman revealed last month to SN&R that he was fired following an internal affairs investigation into the fatal shooting of Mann, who was armed with a knife, rumored to have a gun and reported to be acting strangely in front of a nearby apartment complex.
The July 11, 2016, shooting—and the ensuing release of police video—plunged Tennis and partner Randy Lozoya into the scalding national debate about deadly law enforcement encounters caught on tape.
For perhaps the first time since Ferguson exploded more than three years ago, one of those officers is crossing the thin blue line to tell his side of the story.
After their colleagues spent long minutes avoiding a confrontation with the agitated Mann, Tennis and Lozoya swooped in with lethal decisiveness. In a span of 44 seconds, they attempted to strike Mann with their patrol vehicle twice, hoofed across the boulevard and put 14 bullets into the mentally troubled 50-year-old.
Despite his taste in t-shirts, Tennis dismisses the notion that he has a hero complex. He says he and his partner did what needed to be done.
“We don’t get trained to just follow someone at a safe distance and not act,” he says. “That’s the problem that went on for five minutes. And I didn’t get there and go, ’Oh, I’m gonna end this.’ I got there in absolute fear that something tragic was going to happen.”
Something tragic did happen, say Mann’s siblings.
“You just jump out of your car and unload on him—that’s unacceptable,” says brother Robert Mann. “That’s not protecting and serving our community.”
The forces that put John Tennis and Joseph Mann in each other’s path began a long time ago. Close in age, both men grew up in Sacramento around the same time. They both spun contented childhoods into careers in criminal justice. Both led lives interrupted by substance abuse and personal bedevilments. Both sought help from the system.
One of them got it. The other was Joseph Mann.
Seated at a conference table inside SN&R, a couple blocks from where he and Mann met, Tennis rubs his dry palms together and takes a drag of recirculated air. He doesn’t know what he’s doing here, he says. A cop talking to the press about a fatal shooting, one that’s still being litigated, his lawyer will probably have his head. But he feels the need to unburden himself.
“I’m not this beast that I’m made out to be,” Tennis says.
Joseph Mann’s loved ones say the same thing about Joe.
‘In the midst of chaos’
Sliding on his belly in the wet grass, John Tennis lay head to head with the man he was trying to choke into submission. Tennis didn’t know the man was a suspected car thief, or why he had rabbited from East Del Paso Heights, leading officers on a reckless, high-speed pursuit to an apartment complex a few miles away. He wouldn’t learn the suspect’s name until after he was dead: Albert Thiel. Black male. Age 35.
It was September 1997.
For the 36-year-old officer, the fatal encounter with Thiel would become a signature event. Here was a suspect high on drugs. Here were Tennis’ fellow officers, in his mind, unable to contain a scary situation. And here was Tennis coming to the rescue.<hr style="width:25%" align="left">
John Tennis didn’t always want to be a cop. The second son of a postal carrier and a homemaker, Tennis came up middle-class in the suburbs of North Sacramento and then Carmichael. He remembers cowboy matinees in East Sacramento at the old Alhambra Theatre, a chalk-pink Spanish cathedral of a movie house with a scarlet marquee and matching red carpet; solo bike rides to Citrus Heights, before it was a city, to stare at the pit of dirt that became Sunrise Mall; and, when he had his own wheels, getting pulled over more times than he’d care to admit.
“I didn’t really like cops because I got stopped a lot when I was a kid,” Tennis shrugs. “I was one of them guys driving around too fast.”
Tennis ran track at Hiram Johnson High School, but was an unenthusiastic student, he says. So one day, at the age of 18, he strode into an Army recruiter’s office and enlisted. “I told the recruiter, ’Send me as far away from Sacramento as you can,’” Tennis remembers. “He said, ’How about Italy?’ I said, ’That works.’”
The only people Tennis told of his decision were his folks, he says.
Tennis says he deployed with a paratrooper unit in 1980 to Vincenzo, Italy, his home base for the next four years. (A Pentagon official referred a request for Tennis’ military records to the National Archives and Records Administration.) A peacetime soldier, Tennis says he spent his tour skipping around Europe and the USSR during the dreg days of the Cold War, as only an American could. When Army intelligence warned him the Russians would read his mail and have him tailed once he was in their territory, Tennis started slipping pictures of Mao Zedong into correspondences written to “comrade” this and “comrade” that, he says.
On the eastern side of the Berlin Wall, he recalls, he lost count of the bullet holes pockmarking the buildings. In Budapest, he says, he unsuccessfully tried to train with Soviet soldiers. He became enchanted with communist-controlled Hungary and Yugoslavia, where he remembers a woman on a train warning him of a coming war. Why, he asked. Everyone here hates everyone else, she told him.
When Tennis returned stateside, he confronted an old quandary—what now? He had an associate’s degree, but didn’t see the point in more studying. He considered becoming a firefighter, but someone told him he was good with people and pointed him toward law enforcement.
“I truly believe in making the world a better place, as corny as that sounds,” he says. “I didn’t think I’d get hired, to tell you the truth. But I just don’t like seeing people get victimized.”
Sandy-haired with a rigid jaw and a raspy voice that he says he got from entering a burning house years ago, Tennis is the Type A sort of person the Police Department used to court, says Officer James Walker.
Like Tennis, Walker has spent nearly three decades as a patrolman with Sac PD. He started shortly before Tennis and has known him his entire career. “Working with John off and on over the years, I always thought he was a great officer—fair and just and morally grounded,” Walker says. “From what I know of him, he’s not a bad guy.”
Average in height, Tennis is hewn like an ox thanks to an exacting workout regimen, with a widescreen chest and knotted biceps and calves. Walker says that physicality makes Tennis good in a scrap, but that he prefers to listen, like that time they responded to a family row and Tennis let everyone air their grievances. “John would let people talk,” Walker says.
Noting Tennis’ black ex-wife and his four biracial children, Walker adds: “He might look like a poster child for Germany in the 1940s, but he’s not.”
But Walker can’t deny his former colleague’s propensity for finding himself in the middle of violent confrontations. Walker is careful to note that he doesn’t think Tennis sought out trouble. If anything, Walker says, Tennis is a victim of his devotion to tough, disadvantaged neighborhoods.
“I’d describe it this way: There are those officers, they just have this crazy habit of being in the wrong place at the right time,” he says. “John chose to be in the midst of the chaos.”
‘He left the world’
Vernadine Murphy Mann already knew who was ringing her bell when she answered the door. No one else had a talent for materializing out of thin air like her baby brother.
“Hey sis. I’m here,” Joseph Mann said plainly.
Joe looked a little rough around the edges. He needed a shave. His rumpled clothes begged for a dance with the spin cycle.
Vern stifled her joy and let her brother inside. How long had he been gone this time? She would fix him up. A hot meal and a warm bath, just like when they were kids and their mom deputized Vern, the oldest, to co-parent Joe, the youngest.
“With my brother Joe, it was maternal,” Vern says of their relationship. “I felt like he was my baby.”
But she knew not to smother. Joe needed to get into the garage first, to visit his suitcase, the one that held his papers, some clothes, and the old photographs that reminded him who he was.<hr style="width:25%" align="left">
Around the same time that John Tennis was asking the Army to ship him out of Sacramento, the Mann family was on its way here.
Wanting a fresh start in a new town, William Mann accepted an offer to join his insurance firm’s expansion west. In 1979, the Mann family made the cross-country exodus from Newburg, New York—a broken-asphalt burg with a shifty reputation—to Sacramento—a sleepy government town ringed by sleepier suburbs and sweeping, undeveloped land.
It proved a rough transition.
Their second week in Sacramento, a neighbor in their apartment building fell asleep with a lit cigarette between his fingers. The entire complex—and everything the Manns owned—turned to a heap of ash and cinder on the corner of 13th and G streets.
“We started with nothing,” says Robert Mann, who, like Joe, was in his early teens at the time. “That was just something that was the first challenge.”
Separated by two years, Robert and Joe navigated the early challenges together. Their three older siblings were all grown and living adult lives. Because they were so close in age, Robert and Joe were given a nickname by the first wave of Mann children. “We called them ’stair steps,’” Vern says.
The brothers remained tight after their parents separated and Joe moved with his mother to Stockton to finish up high school. If the split phased him, Joe didn’t show it. He flourished as a popular upperclassman at the largely white and Latino Tokay High School in Lodi, a small agricultural town a half-hour drive north.
“Most of his girlfriends [were] white,” Robert chuckles. “He was a ladies’ man, that’s for sure.”
“Joe was a people person,” is how Vern puts it. “And he saw the good in everybody.”
He also cultivated eclectic tastes. After graduating Tokay in 1983, he attended the University of the Pacific, where he spun jazz, rock and classical records as a college deejay called “The Character,” Robert says. When Vern was preparing to start a home-based childcare business, Joe drew up the interior design plans. He loved classic cars, discussing politics and giving unsolicited stock tips, Robert says.
Joe was also ambitious, his siblings say.
While working as a checker at the Raley’s supermarket on Mack Road, Joe attended night school at local community colleges in Sacramento, eventually getting associates degrees in business and communications, Robert says. In 2001, Joe landed a position with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, where he worked as an office technician for the next five-and-a-half years, a CDCR spokesman confirmed.
These were the salad days for Joe, and he enjoyed them a little too much, Robert says.
Thanks to a savvy home sale two years before the housing bubble popped, Joe was rolling in disposable income. He had a dashing Datsun 280ZX coupe and a new girlfriend who liked to travel—and to use narcotics.
“She pulled him in,” Robert claims. “When you have an addiction and all this money in the bank, it doesn’t end well.”
The family was slow to learn of Joe’s drug habit. A 2010 conviction for driving under the influence tipped them off. When Joe was forced to take a leave of absence from work, they knew something larger was at play.
In his time of need, Joe went to be with the one person he was closest to—his mom.
Robert says Joe moved to Georgia knowing their aging mother didn’t have much time. For her part, Lucille Mann knew her youngest was struggling. In their separate ways, Joe and Lucille tried to keep each other tethered to the world for a while longer.
“They were super close,” Robert says. “She was his whole world and he was her baby. And one thing I know is a mother’s love for her son is unconditional. No matter what he was experiencing or going through, she supported him. That’s just the way mothers are.”
When Lucille died in 2011 at the age of 72, Joe returned to Sacramento. But something in him had been set adrift, his family members say. He couldn’t see his way back to shore. Nor could he conjure a purpose for trying to find a way back.
“After my mom passed, he felt like he didn’t have that sense that everything was so important anymore,” Robert observes. “He left the world of the good community, so to speak, and got caught up in that other community.”
Joe’s drug use deepened. His absences from the family grew. Vern couldn’t abide them. She’d get in her car and drive around aimlessly, hoping to lay eyes on her brother. Nearly a decade apart in age, Vern hoped their special bond would act as a homing beacon. In a roundabout way, it did. She didn’t always know where to find Joe, but he’d eventually turn up on her doorstep.
“I feel he was coming just to let me know he was OK,” Vern says. “Sometimes I miss that.”
Two weeks before his death, Joe followed Vern into the garage and knelt down before his private time capsule. He popped the latches on his old suitcase and found the waxy celluloid reminders: Of him, primped for prom in a white tux, or standing shoulder to shoulder with Robert, or clasping his doting mother. In each photograph, that thousand-watt smile and the world on a string.
Joe felt his sister standing there. There was still time. He closed the suitcase and went inside.
‘Don’t go for my gun’
The county coroner determined that Albert Thiel asphyxiated as a result of blunt force trauma to his neck. Specifically, the thyroid cartilage on the left side of his throat had been fractured, causing hemorrhaging that partially blocked his airway.
“I said, ’That was probably me,’ because I was the one holding him down,” Tennis says now.
That admission never became part of the public record.
In absolving Tennis and other officers of criminal wrongdoing, the district attorney’s office said it wasn’t clear what caused the fatal injury, attributing it to a likely “misadventure.” The DA’s report also determined that Tennis may have rescued his fellow officers from an uncertain fate by grappling with Thiel, who was high on crack cocaine and listed as more than 200 pounds on a 5-foot-8 frame.
“Thiel was a big and powerful man and officers could be injured or worse if they were not successful in apprehending Thiel,” the report stated. “It was entirely reasonable for Tennis … to apprehend Thiel by trying to control the only part of Thiel’s body available to him, the head and neck.”
Thiel’s family filed a complaint that went to mediation, Tennis says. He says Thiel’s mother asked the officers to show her what happened to her son. Inside of a conference room, Tennis says he complied.
“We went down on the ground and showed her everything,” Tennis says. “My attorney decided to pay, whatever, $50,000 I think.”
A few years later, Tennis was involved in more critical incidents.
In 2000, he was sued for using excessive force during the arrest of a sex offender, court records show. The plaintiff’s attorney previously told SN&R he believed the case ended in a settlement, but didn’t recall the details.
That same year, Tennis says, he and another officer responded at night to a weapons call involving a man who had allegedly told a friend he wanted to kill a cop. At Branch Street and Harris Avenue, in a neighborhood of pitched roofs and chain-link fences, Tennis says, he spotted a male subject loading a gun near the side of a home.
“I think I said something like, ’Freeze motherfucker,’” Tennis recalls. “He saw me. He started running.”
Tennis says he gave chase across a couple of residential blocks. He lost sight as the suspect scampered down a dark driveway. As Tennis rounded a parked car, he says, he saw the suspect about to clear a low fence.
“He’s coming up and spinning around with a gun in his hand and I fire six rounds off-handed. I hit him a couple of times and he collapses,” Tennis says. “We roll him over and he had the gun right there. He lived. I think he walks funny, I don’t know.”
Tennis says he also fired his weapon at a suspected car thief who tried to run him down earlier in his career, in the mid-1990s. He says he struck the vehicle three times, but not the suspect.
He says he considers it a “miracle” that he hasn’t been involved in more shootings, given the sector he’s worked.
“Don’t get me wrong. I got in a lot of fights up there, but it was just real,” Tennis says. “The rule is, when you fight, don’t go for my gun.”
As for why—or even whether—Tennis got fired, police Chief Daniel Hahn says he’s prevented from discussing the personnel history of his officers, even former ones. Like Tennis, Hahn patrolled Del Paso Heights as a beat cop during the 1990s. Asked if he developed an impression of Tennis in those days, he says he did but demurs when asked to share it.
Unlike Tennis, Hahn says he’s never had cause to fire his weapon at a suspect. Neither has Walker. Both Hahn and Walker say it’s common for officers to draw their guns, but rare to pull the trigger.
“Guys like John, he’s just one of those guys that … I can’t explain it,” Walker says. “The fact that John’s been involved in that many things—I certainly haven’t. And most guys in the department haven’t.”
Like other police officials contacted by SN&R, Hahn expressed surprise that Tennis was speaking publicly.
“I’ve never seen such a thing before,” says Hahn, who took over the department months after the Mann shooting. “It’s really strange.”
‘Things to do’
With their matriarch gone and their dad getting older, the Mann children responded to Joe’s struggles the only way they knew how, with all hands on deck. The siblings and their adult children took Joe into their homes for long spells. Robert joined his brother at A.A. and N.A. meetings. Inside church basements where addicts talked about yielding to a higher power, the two discussed treatment options. Joe checked himself into the county’s Mental Health Treatment Center on Stockton Boulevard, and checked out a private psychiatric facility, Heritage Oaks Hospital, on Auburn Boulevard.
Joe was trying, Robert says. But the global economy had buckled. And the options were disappearing.
In 2009, Sacramento County cut 50 psychiatric beds and pulled the plug on its only crisis-stabilization unit, a 23-hour observation unit that fielded 6,800 adult visits a year, according to a 2015 report from the Sierra Sacramento Valley Medical Society. Local emergency rooms were suddenly flooded with 1,600 new visits a month from people with nowhere else to go for mental health care. The medical society report called the ripple effects “staggering.”
The Manns weren’t spared.
“When all these programs started disappearing, there was more time spent away from the family, more time spent wandering,” Robert says.
Robert knew his brother was cloaking grief and shame. He saw the mask slip enough times to know Joe felt like a fraud in his own skin. His brother sought out people who didn’t know the old him. Joe found stranded addicts, shipwrecked in their own deteriorating vessels. With them, he had only the one thing in common: A grimy crystal over a hot torch. A sour wind that greases the lungs and hotwires the synapses. The hunger that left you emptier each time you fed it.
Joe’s contacts with law enforcement mounted. He accrued six convictions in Sacramento Superior Court after his mother’s passing. Most were for petty theft or shoplifting. In 2015, he was convicted in separate cases of making criminal threats, a misdemeanor, and felony burglary, online court records show.
Robert believes that last arrest occurred when Joe sneaked into an unlocked motel room on Richards Boulevard to steal a nap.
“The few incidences where he went to jail were for small things—vagrancy, shoplifting,” Robert insists. “He was still a good dude. Even though he was struggling.”
About a week before Joe was killed, Robert found his brother at their niece’s home in South Sac. Joe was doing chores outside in the airless heat. Robert’s face stretched into a grin. He missed his brother, but put it the way men do when they show their hearts to one another.
“Hey man, why don’t you come back and hang out with me for a while?” he nudged.
Joe swept a hand across his wet forehead and laughed his raspy laugh.
“Yeah, yeah, eventually,” Joe deflected, “but I got things to do right now.”
It was the last time Robert saw his brother alive.
‘This is going to go bad’
Officers Tennis and Lozoya were wrapping up a call near Rio Linda when they first learned police were dealing with an armed subject in North Sacramento.
The veteran patrolmen had worked together often, but didn’t normally ride together. Two days earlier, in Dallas, a harrowing sniper attack killed five police officers. The ambush was sprung near the end of a rally protesting the scrutinized police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille. The piercing cracks that echoed between the tall buildings of downtown Dallas threw the city into a panic. Police used a remote-controlled bomb to kill the suspect, a veteran of the Afghanistan conflict.
Even with the Sacramento Police Department short-staffed, Tennis says, officers were told to buddy up that week in an abundance of caution. There was no escaping the nation’s shifting mood toward law enforcement’s treatment of black men, in particular. Michael Brown. Tamir Rice. Walter Scott. Sterling and Castille. The names of the dead kept multiplying.
It was just after 9 a.m. Monday, July 11, 2016. Tennis picked up speed, heading southwest toward the call. Another name was about to join the list.
Back on Lochbrae Road, two callers had alerted dispatchers to a man acting bizarrely, doing karate moves in front of an apartment complex and flipping a knife. The man kicked the air. He shouted strange things. He urinated on himself. One caller said he had a black gun tucked in his waistband.
“He just pulled the gun out. He just pulled the gun out,” the caller repeated. “He said, ’I am the law.’”
No gun was ever found. As far as anyone could later prove, Joseph Mann was armed with a knife in one hand and a metallic coffee mug in the other.
Tennis and Lozoya didn’t hear the 911 calls directly. The information they received was broadcast over their police band radio signal and translated onto their computer screen in bursts of text. Rumors of a martial arts background. Might have military training. Seen with a gun.
“The first thing I start thinking was, this is one of those Iraqi vets with PTSD,” Tennis says. “He’s going off. This is going to go bad.”
Tennis wasn’t a stranger to things not going according to plan.<hr style="width:25%" align="left">
Somewhere along the way, the rules of the job changed. The cops Tennis came up with, the rookies he trained, they climbed the ranks while he remained on patrol. Twenty-six years on the street beat, chasing calls and fielding complaints. Never your own man, always someone’s grunt.
That wasn’t by design.
Tennis says he aced his department’s SWAT tryouts in ’99 but was passed over. He’d pissed off one too many lieutenants, he says, spoken his mind too often. Maybe he’d gotten into too many fights, drawn too many complaints. Tennis says he made his peace with it. He was Sisyphus, shouldering a boulder he knew he’d never summit. He could either curse his fate or embrace it. Tennis says he chose the latter.
Del Paso Heights became his house beat. A hard neighborhood, yeah, but filled with decent, hardworking people. Tennis was there to protect them.
But time is a persistent hammer. Fashions and philosophies change. Society evolves. Chiefs come and go. Every badge loses its luster. Every pawn meets its sacrifice.
“Most people realize, when you’re out on patrol, that’s when shit’s gonna happen. That’s when you’re gonna get in trouble,” Tennis says. “You’ve got to get out of that environment. It’s not survivable.”
Tennis couldn’t take his own advice.
He was drinking too much. Like many other cops, his marriage unraveled. In 2011, the same year that Mann’s mother died, Tennis was stripped of his gun when an El Dorado County judge hit him with a temporary restraining order. Tennis’ ex-wife had accused him of domestic violence and child abuse, charges Tennis denies. The judge later lifted the restraining order and Tennis got his gun back when the department went to bat for him.
In 2013, the department ordered Tennis into treatment after he admitted to abusing alcohol. But Tennis’ career was stalled. He got tired of humping out to calls, of getting yelled at, of the filth. “I’ve been thrown up on, shit on, comed on—I’m dead serious,” he says. “It can be very disgusting.”
I ask Tennis if he ever felt burned out.
“I got tired of it,” he admits. “Because my department is very, very big on putting you in a box.”
Tennis says he learned to do things differently. He stopped running plates or pulling over suspicious vehicles. He answered his calls and went home to his kids.
“You just give them a different product,” he says. “You’re not doing things that are gonna raise an eyebrow or get you into a fight, you know what I mean? So, ’Oh, gee, you got into another one.’ It’s not me.”
In Tennis’ mind, he had changed. Hadn’t taken a drink in years. Even his mouth had mellowed. He kept a well-worn photo of his kids on him at all times and thought about how smart they were, how eager to make the world a better place. He glimpsed retirement just over the horizon and focused on coasting toward it.
Then Joseph Mann entered his field of vision.<hr style="width:25%" align="left">
As their car shunted down Del Paso Boulevard, Tennis and Lozoya watched a figure juke past a sergeant’s patrol SUV with an arm cocked down by his side, according to dash cam videos released last year.
“Fuck this guy,” Lozoya said.
“I’m gonna hit him,” Tennis said.
“OK, go for it. Go for it,” Lozoya said.
Their squad car swerves into a stubby crosswalk, narrowly missing Mann. Tennis stomps the brakes and peels into reverse, finding Mann standing on the sidewalk past a white-plaster compound with a gated parking lot. Tennis says his partner noticed a lady standing on a median in the middle of the street.
“He started to head towards her,” Tennis says of Mann. “Randy and I are both convinced that, if we didn’t … take his mind off what he was doing, he would have stabbed and killed her. Absolutely convinced of that.”
From the videos that the Police Department released, it appears that Mann only briefly approached the woman to escape getting hit by Tennis’ car.
After another attempt to ram Mann off his feet, the car slams to a stop at the tree-and-bush-lined median. One of the officers says, “We’ll get him.” The doors open. Mann’s momentum has carried him up a shaded sidewalk. Tennis and Lozoya briefly jog up the street parallel to Mann before closing the distance.
Tennis is a few feet ahead of Lozoya, who levels his gun first. Tennis says he’s looking for an opening to talk, but didn’t find one. He acknowledges that he didn’t give Mann any verbal commands before he opened fire.
“I really didn’t think it would have mattered at that point,” he says. “He stood there screaming at me. And when that hand came up, that’s when I shot him.”
Mann points with the knife in his hand. He points again. The third time, he buckles forward.
The cracks come in rapid succession. By the time it was done, Tennis’ sidearm had bucked eight times. Lozoya fired 10 rounds. Fourteen struck Mann, snapping into his chest, abdomen, groin, both legs and one ankle as he stooped over and crumpled to his side. Tennis says he doesn’t know who shot first but believes Lozoya fired last—a bullet that skipped off the sidewalk.
Tennis says he went over to a groaning Mann and kicked the knife away and grabbed his arm. He says he was still looking for the gun. Even though no gun was ever found, Tennis says he is convinced that Mann had one.
“He probably tossed it,” Tennis says. “People do it all the time.”
After the other officers approached, Tennis released Mann’s arm and turned around to see Lozoya on the ground with an injured leg. Tennis says his partner already had bum wheels when he dangled one outside the car as Tennis banged to a stop. Lozoya went to the hospital and Tennis went to the headquarters to speak to the union lawyer before proffering his statement.
Sitting in the dim newspaper conference room with a neglected gas station soda at his elbow, Tennis tells me that it was at the stationhouse where he learned what he and Lozoya had done.
“I was sitting there in a room and nobody was telling me how he was doing,” Tennis says.
Who, I ask.
“Joseph Mann,” he says. Tennis looks to the side and shifts his jaw. “Just give me a minute please.”
He goes on.
“They told me he was dead.”
‘A category that nobody wants to be in’
Vern says she doesn’t remember the call where her dad told her what happened to Joe. She just knows that she can no longer go inside the restaurant where she answered her phone.
“I think it’s because I mentally shut down. I know it is, because you told me my baby brother is …” she says, not completing the thought. “This is a category that nobody wants to be in. And it’s thrust upon you.”
Robert got the next phone call. He left work and rushed to police headquarters, seeking answers to impossible questions. He says the homicide detectives unbuttoned their lips just enough to tell him what would appear in a department press release later that day: His brother came at officers with a knife. They had no choice, so they shot him multiple times.
Joseph Mann was responsible for his own demise.
The explanation infuriated Robert.
“I know that’s not my brother. My brother doesn’t carry guns. My brother doesn’t act erratic. My brother doesn’t harm anybody. Because I’ve been with my brother all 50 years of my life. I know who my brother is,” he says. “It was heartbreaking to me, because my first instinct was to act a fool.”
Instead, Robert promised the detectives he would get to the bottom of things and left the station. Inside his car, his body shook without his permission.
A few days later, a bystander’s cellphone recording surfaced. Then the Sacramento Bee got hold of the business surveillance video showing the actual shooting. Together, they contradicted aspects of the official account. Joseph Mann appeared to be the hunted instead of the hunter.
Under mounting community pressure, the Police Department made the unprecedented decision to release a trove of internal recordings documenting the incident. SN&R was the first to report that Tennis and Lozoya tried to run Mann over before shooting him. Mann’s story drew national attention. It joined a blossoming chronicle of questionable law enforcement killings. Tennis says he and Lozoya received “legitimate death threats” that caused their department to assign officers outside their homes.
The repercussions came in slow waves. The police chief announced his retirement at the end of 2016. This January, the City Council passed a slate of accountability measures for the Police Department, instituting a video-release policy and creating a community-staffed police commission. A month later, the city settled a wrongful death lawsuit with Joseph Mann’s father for a little over $700,000.
But the Mann family wasn’t satisfied.
“They kind of pressured my dad into taking the little money that they gave him to try to close out the case as quickly as possible,” Robert says. “I was still upset, because I felt like nothing really had been accomplished. So what, you gave my dad a few dollars. But what about the accountability?”
Behind the scenes, the Police Department was exploring a similar question.<hr style="width:25%" align="left">
In October 2016, Tennis says, Internal Affairs opened its investigation into the Mann shooting. Tennis claims the three-month gap between the shooting and the start of the I.A. inquiry is unprecedented and shows that the department was politically motivated to get rid of him and Lozoya.
Chief Hahn says there’s nothing unusual about the time frame, since I.A. only begins its work after the criminal investigation and an administrative use-of-force review are completed. “We want them to have all the evidence,” he says.
When the ax started to swing over the summer, Tennis says it became a race for him and Lozoya to medically retire from duty before the department fired them. Lozoya with his bad legs crossed the finish line; Tennis with his respiratory problems didn’t.
Tennis was already under the pall of a separate I.A. investigation, he says. Four months before the Mann shooting, Tennis says, he accidentally struck a 15-year-old assault suspect and a fellow officer with his patrol vehicle out by Grant High School.
“Never happened before,” Tennis says. “And then some other things happened. Obviously I can’t go into that.”
All Tennis will say is that those other things—and not the collision—are what prompted his sergeant to file an internal affairs complaint against him. When a commanding officer files a complaint against an officer, it has a better chance of being substantiated than one coming from a civilian. It’s what cops refer to as getting “blue-sheeted.”
“It was kind of an extreme call and there were some issues,” Tennis acknowledges. “I knew it was going to go somewhere. … When you’re blue-sheeted by a supervisor, you’re not gonna win.”
After Mann’s death, however, Tennis says I.A. revised the complaint to say he had a pattern of hitting suspects with his car. Tennis says he was suspended for a month without pay. When he returned to duty at the end of May, Tennis says, he was called into his supervisor’s office. “I said, ’Oh, you’re going to fire me today, aren’t you?’”
Two officers Tennis says he knew escorted him to the internal affairs office. He glanced down at their hips. Had they always worn their guns inside the station? Then he noticed how they were pacing slightly behind and flanking him, in what’s called a bladed stance, which officers employ when dealing with subjects of volatile intent. Tennis told his fellow cops they didn’t have to treat him this way.
“Do you honestly believe I’m gonna go postal?” he says he told them. “I got four kids.”
In I.A., he was stripped of his badge and placed on administrative leave, a precursor to his termination. Then the two officers walked Tennis out of the station and off the premises.
“And that was the end of that. It was pretty humiliating,” Tennis says. “It’s literally being treated like a criminal.”
This past October, the Police Department announced that Tennis and Lozoya were no longer employed by the agency. Citing a California law concerning peace officers’ personnel records, Hahn says he is prohibited from providing additional details.
That hasn’t stopped Tennis from making the unusual decision to share some of those details himself.
Tennis discloses that the official grounds for his termination were that he violated the Police Department’s general orders regarding use of force, discharging a firearm, professional conduct and the agency’s code of ethics—“whatever that means.”
“Basically the department said I had no reason to do anything I did,” he says. “I had no reason to get out of my car. I had no reason to approach him. No one was in danger. The public wasn’t in danger. Officers weren’t in danger.”
Looking down at his termination letter, Tennis reads the following: “’Use of force was not necessary for self defense, [to] affect an arrest, prevent his escape or overcome his resistance.’” He looks up. “So what they’re saying is that I was 100 percent wrong, according to the general orders,” he says.
If that’s the case, Tennis says he should be charged with a crime.
“Am I a murderer? Or am I not a murderer?”<hr style="width:25%" align="left">
In June, the surviving Mann siblings hired local civil rights attorney Mark Merin, who filed a new federal lawsuit seeking not money but answers. The city tried to argue that Joe’s two brothers and two sisters don’t have the same legal standing that their father did to sue. In September, the judge ruled that they do. The city is appealing that decision.
“That’s where we are,” Merin says.
Somewhere in there, Thanksgiving arrived. What was left of the Mann family gathered around an incomplete table, broke bread and muddled through.
“Him being gone right now, it’s like there’s a hole,” Vern says. “There’s a spot gone right now. That’s Joe. Joe’s missing.”
Seventeen months after his brother’s death, Robert says his family has no intention of stopping its crusade until Tennis and Lozoya face criminal charges.
“From the very beginning, it was never about money,” he says. “I want them to be held accountable. I want them to be prosecuted. I’m not going to stop until they’re prosecuted.”
Tennis makes a very different promise to his former employer.
“I told them I am not going out the backdoor with your boot in my ass. I’m leaving the front door like I’ve earned,” he says of his employment claim against the department. “Because I hate to say this, but this is going to cost a lot of money. I’m going to get my job back.”
Like it has done in every similar case for more than 30 years, the Sacramento County district attorney’s office ruled the officer-involved shooting a clean one. Tennis is free from criminal prosecution, but feels a prisoner of his tarnished reputation. His parents, who are in their 80s, canceled Christmas this year due to the enduring scrutiny over what their son did one summer morning a year ago.
“They kind of had a breakdown over this,” he says. “That’s the kind of stuff that really upsets me.”
The job and its bleak visions have always provided ample stress, but Tennis finds the dark moods gathering more frequently now. He gets mad at what he hears about himself on the television. He feels discarded by his department, and embittered that his name is now associated with all those reckless, rash and abusive cops who throw their cities into sorrow-stricken turmoil.
Tennis refuses to see himself as one of them. “They’re trying to throw me in the same boat as those [shootings] you see that are bad, that anger me,” he says.
All those shifts spent in emergency rooms waiting with the despondent and mentally ill. All those times he’s gotten suspects McDonald’s before taking them to jail. All those uneventful contacts where nobody went to jail.
And this is what he’ll be remembered for.
Every once in a while, out in the world, Tennis says, he gets “the look.”
He shrugs his long, slanted shoulders. He’s nursing a slight limp, the result, he says, of doing weighted sprints up the stairs of the Westfield Galleria at Roseville. He dismisses the injury and underlines it at the same time. It’s nothing, he says. He was pushing himself too hard, exhausting his body in the hopes of quieting his mind. Nightmares, he says. Gasping lungs, he says. Phantom thoughts haunt his sleep. A coffin darkens his heart. He flashes a thin smile. It’s nothing, he says again.
Temporarily unburdened of his grievances, Tennis walks a little stiffly to the door. I ask him one more question before he leaves. I ask him what he would say to Joseph Mann’s family.
Tennis says he actually offered to meet with them right after the shooting, to show them he was a regular guy, a dad. The lawyers scuttled that idea. He says he wishes them peace, and a passage through their grief and anger.
“I know when you lose a kid, you never get over that,” he says. “I know it’s a goddamned shame when you have a kid murdered—”
Tennis stops and resets himself: “… killed by the cops.”
It’s a momentary gaffe. An unfortunate mistake. The story of John Tennis is full of them.