Fighting for change: Sacramento Police Department publicly rebukes officer who beat pedestrian in jaywalking incident

Rare admonishment represents a conscious shift in tone, says independent monitor

This is an extended version of a story that ran in the April 13, 2017, issue.

Social media may change police culture yet.

In a rare and public rebuke, the Sacramento Police Department suspended an officer Monday night for his “unacceptable” role in the beating of a pedestrian hours earlier in the Del Paso Heights neighborhood. On Tuesday, the department also announced the officer might face criminal actions for his conduct.

The altercation was captured in a cellphone video recording that was shared on social media, words that have become synonymous with the public’s increased awareness—and scrutiny—of law enforcement’s use of force.

The officer, a two-year veteran the department declined to name, was placed on paid administrative leave Monday night after the eyewitness video showed him assaulting a pedestrian he attempted to detain for jaywalking at the intersection of Cypress Street and Grand Avenue just after 5 p.m. April 10.

According to a Sacramento Police Department release, the officer exited his marked patrol car and attempted to stop the pedestrian for the unlawful crossing. The release says the pedestrian ignored the officer’s commands and walked away.

A cellphone video, recorded from inside a car, picks up the stalemate with the two men facing each other on a quiet residential street. The pedestrian, whom Fox 40 identified as Nandi Cain Jr., strips off his jacket and tosses it aside. The officer then charges Cain, grabs him around the collarbone, swings him around and pulls him to the ground. The officer then turns Cain onto his back and throws punches at his head.

Mayor Darrell Steinberg called the incident “extremely disturbing” in a released statement.

In the release summarizing the incident, the police department implies it doesn’t understand its officer’s response. “For an unknown reason, the officer threw the pedestrian to the ground and began striking him in the face with his hand multiple times,” the release states. “The videos of this incident portray actions and behavior that we would consider unacceptable conduct by a Sacramento Police Officer.”

That kind of immediate acknowledgment of wrongdoing is a rarity for law enforcement agencies, which more commonly summarize controversial incidents from the points of view of their officers, even when the facts later turn out different.

Such was the case in the July 11, 2016, officer-involved shooting death of Joseph Mann, a mentally ill homeless man, in Del Paso Heights. The release issued hours after two officers shot Mann multiple times asserted he was a threat to the public, in part, by describing a scene in which Mann, armed with a small knife, came in close proximity to a female bystander. But the release omitted the fact that Mann ran past the woman and only because he was dodging a patrol car that tried to hit him.

Francine Tournour, director of the city’s Office of Public Safety and Accountability, said the department’s change in tone was a conscious one. “Transparency is necessary and has to be immediate,” she texted from a meeting with Del Paso Heights community leaders. “That’s the only way to further build trust with the community.”

Tanya Faison, founder of the Sacramento chapter of Black Lives Matter, was skeptical that the department’s new tone signaled any lasting changes.

“They know they have been in the hot seat,” she wrote in a text. “There have been so many stories of police beatings and killings coming out of Sac just in the last couple of months. The story isn’t dying and it won’t until they react different.”

Faison was referring to a March 6 incident involving a shirtless man reportedly challenging bystanders to fight in a parking lot. Responding officers found John Hernandez, 34, who tried to escape down a narrow hallway of a medical office building. Police say a three-and-a-half-minute violent confrontation ensued as officers used Tasers and batons to subdue Hernandez, who was left severely brain damaged. The department released surveillance and in-car camera footage of the incident, none of which showed the actual altercation between officers and Hernandez, who now needs a ventilator to breathe.

Other recent police confrontations have ended with less injury. On April 6, officers used a Taser to subdue a barefoot man who attempted to stab himself with a knife and then ran into traffic in South Sacramento, according to an online incident summary. The man was then transported for a psychiatric evaluation. A day before, officers also used a Taser to subdue an erratic man armed with a pickax, while, in a different call, cops separated a suicidal mother from a loaded firearm while her children slept in a backroom.

No disciplinary action has been taken against the officers involved in the Hernandez incident. As for Cain, the police department never charged him with a crime. Without naming Cain, police spokesman Sgt. Bryce Heinlein said the pedestrian was arrested on a charge of resisting a peace officer, and became uncooperative with deputies at the jail, but was released due to “insufficient evidence.” Instead, the department’s Internal Affairs Division is investigating the officer’s conduct, the release says. A criminal investigation is also occurring.

In the video, as he lies belly-down with his hands cuffed behind him, Cain can be heard shouting at the officers standing above him, “I just got off work! Y’all gonna be hearing from my lawyer, and my boss!”