Lessons and legacy
While AB 392 has become a singular focus, other reforms are being floated
One year after two Sacramento police officers gunned down an unarmed black man in his grandparents’ backyard, the victim’s brother reiterated a prediction he had been making since he learned the news: Stephon Clark would survive his March 18, 2018 slaying.
“Stephon Clark will never die,” Stevante Clark said Monday from the steps of the state Capitol.
He made his remarks at a press conference presided over by Clark family attorney Benjamin Crump, headlined by the Rev. Al Sharpton and attended by relatives of Clark and others killed by law enforcement. Speakers sought to build support for Assembly Bill 392, which would tighten the circumstances under which officers could use deadly force in California.
Stevante, his grandmother and mother used their time at the lectern to do what they’ve been doing for 365 days—tell the public about somebody they love who’s no longer here, and push for the kind of peaceful change that was stolen from a 22-year-old father of two still figuring out his life.
“Let’s march peacefully, because they want us to act ugly,” Clark’s grandmother Sequita Thompson said. “Let’s stand tall and proud. We will get justice one day for all our loved ones.”
That no longer sounds like the wishful thinking of a grieving matriarch.
Clark’s death a year ago has sustained the public’s interest and, in recent weeks, galvanized efforts to change the way the justice system polices communities of color—and itself.
Much of the recent energy has come from the system’s self-inflicted wounds, reformers say. While it was an open secret that Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert would clear the officers who shot Clark—to the extent that the Police Department reserved Cal Expo to detain arrestees nearly two months before Schubert announced her decision—Clark family members and community leaders say they didn’t expect Schubert to focus her press conference on his personal life.
Reaction to Schubert’s implication that Clark may have wanted to die because of a recent domestic violence allegation enraged those who noted she didn’t put the same effort into unpacking the emotional states of the officers who fired 18 rounds on the mistaken belief that Clark’s cellphone was a gun.
“I’ve never seen a district attorney try so desperately to justify an unjustifiable shooting,” Crump told reporters. Clark, he said, wasn’t trying to commit suicide by cop. “He was trying to get home.”
In a civil lawsuit, Crump is seeking $20 million in damages for the family against the city and its Police Department, as well as policy changes. He and Sharpton also reiterated the family’s desire to see Officers Terrence Mercadal and Jared Robinet fired.
“Anybody that don’t know the difference between a gun and a cellphone ought not still be on the force,” Sharpton said.
The Police Department says it is conducting an internal investigation to determine whether officers should face discipline or dismissal. Chief Daniel Hahn told Capital Public Radio host Beth Ruyak on Tuesday that he expected the results of that investigation soon, possibly within a month. For now, Mercadal and Robinet remain on the force.
The DA’s press conference, as well as California Attorney General Xavier Becerra clearing the officers of criminal charges, has sparked other ideas as well.
Crump and Sharpton want the state to revisit a 2017 law that allows counties to convene grand juries following police killings by making them mandatory to let the public see how the investigations are conducted.
Both Betty Williams, president of the Sacramento Valley chapter of the NAACP, and Mark T. Harris, co-founder of the Law Enforcement Accountability Directive, or LEAD, say that officers involved in deadly encounters should undergo mandatory blood tests.
And then there’s AB 392, which stands a better chance of navigating the Legislature than a similar bill last year, when Clark’s death was fresh.
On March 11, the city’s Community Police Review Commission sent a recommendation to the City Council to not only support AB 392, but implement its use of force changes immediately. The commission added that second bit to its resolution of its own accord, following a presentation by AB 392’s authors, Democratic Assembly members Shirley Weber of San Diego and Kevin McCarty of Sacramento.
The lawmakers explained that they simply ran out of time to get an earlier version of their bill through the legislative churn last year, but have both time and stronger public support on their side. What they don’t have is the blessing of law enforcement, which is backing a Senate bill that would merely require more training for police.
Weber told the commission they tried to broker a compromise with law enforcement groups for five months before talks broke off at the beginning of February.
Mayor Darrell Steinberg and three council colleagues didn’t respond to emails asking how receptive they’d be to implementing AB 392’s policies on a local level, no matter what the Legislature does.
Harris, who co-founded LEAD following the Sacramento police killing of Joseph Mann in July 2016, said he believes the city is the perfect laboratory for trickle-up reforms, such as the video-release policy that went statewide this year.
“We want more of that,” Harris said.
Hours later, approximately 200 people gathered Monday night for Black Lives Matter Sacramento’s march for Clark and other victims of police violence. It was less eventful than a march two weeks ago in East Sacramento, where approximately 100 officers in riot gear arrested more than 80 people. No one was arrested this night and the mood was somber, peaceful and weary.
Marchers stopped on a residential street opposite a park and made a space for those affected by police violence to speak. After a long spell, Clark’s younger brother Jaylen accepted the microphone and spoke softly about a kind of pain that bewilders.
“I wouldn’t wish this on nobody,” he said.