‘Copwatching’ while black
Police detain student while looking for armed suspect on campus, so why didn’t the college alert students of possible threat?
After leaving his music business class at Sacramento City College on the evening of Oct. 10, Theo Scott-Femenella noticed something unusual on his walk back to the campus parking garage—five police officers surrounding a black man.
While the conversation appeared calm, Scott-Femenella positioned himself under a street lamp to watch until it was over. The African-American student’s decision to “copwatch” the encounter got him briefly detained and has raised questions about why—if police were investigating reports of an armed suspect on campus—the college didn’t warn students, faculty and staff.
For Scott-Femenella, a youth mentor and budding music producer, the 30 minutes he spent in Sacramento Police Department custody did something else. It reinforced his belief that black men are more likely to lose their freedom—or even their lives—if they come into contact with law enforcement.
“I felt wronged,” Scott-Femenella told SN&R. “This really furthered my distrust. My civil rights were violated, blatantly, and I was flat-out racially profiled.”
That night, Scott-Femenella says he almost pulled out his cellphone to record, but then remembered Stephon Clark, a fellow Sac City student, shot dead last year by two police officers who mistook his cellphone for a gun.
While the situation was calm at first, Scott-Femenella says it changed when the man officers had surrounded began approaching him. Scott-Femenella asked the man if he was OK, then took a step back when he got closer. Scott-Femenella says that, only then, did the officers intercede—by charging at both of them with their hands on their firearms.
Scott-Femenella says he was handcuffed and sat down on the curb. He says the officers informed him that he matched the description of a black suspect reported to possess a rifle in a black backpack. The suspect had allegedly threatened the man police were interviewing when Scott-Femenella arrived on the scene.
Larry Savidge, chief of the Los Rios Community College District’s police department, said the suspect was described as an African-American male in a light shirt and dark pants. Scott-Femenella said he was wearing a blue, striped shirt and red sweatpants that night, and carrying a small black backpack.
Sacramento police spokeswoman Sgt. Sabrina Briggs confirmed that officers were checking out a report of “a subject with a rifle on the school grounds” because there was only one Los Rios police officer on duty.
Briggs wouldn’t comment on officers’ interaction with Scott-Femenella, citing an open internal affairs investigation. “Anytime there is a complaint made to our internal affairs division, they have to do their due diligence and look into the case, review body cameras and see reports,” she said.
Scott-Femenella shared his version of events in a widely circulated Facebook post, prompting Sacramento City College President Michael Gutierrez to publicly respond on Oct. 15.
“This is not reflective of the type of community we are committed to building at Sacramento City College and throughout Los Rios,” Gutierrez said in his statement. “We support our community’s right to peacefully observe any engagement between officers and members of our community, as that type of transparency is critical to building positive relationships on our campuses. The safety of our students and campus community is paramount.”
Gutierrez made no mention of the armed threat, and the college didn’t issue a Rave alert—an app-based campus-wide warning—that night. Sacramento City College representatives declined to comment, but Savidge said a Rave alert wasn’t issued because it wasn’t needed.
“We quickly determined that there was no weapon involved, no weapon seen,” the police chief said. “That probably happened within less than five minutes of us arriving there. The student arrived about 15 minutes later from when the incident initially occurred.”
Scott-Femenella said hearing a Rave alert could have changed what happened.
“If I knew there was a gunman on campus or nearby, I think the night would have gone very differently,” he said.