Meaning from tragedy: Attacks on Sacramento law enforcement rekindle questions about officer safety, sentencing reform

One deputy killed and five officers (including a police K9) wounded in separate confrontations with suspects

On the same day that hundreds of law enforcement professionals gathered to memorialize Sacramento County sheriff’s Deputy Robert French, two local police officers suffered minor injuries in a September 7 shootout that left a double-homicide suspect dead.

On the same day that hundreds of law enforcement professionals gathered to memorialize Sacramento County sheriff’s Deputy Robert French, two local police officers suffered minor injuries in a September 7 shootout that left a double-homicide suspect dead.

Photo courtesy of the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department

Hours after a motorcade escorted the body of fallen Sacramento sheriff’s Deputy Robert French to the East Lawn Mortuary earlier this month, the woman authorities partly blame for sparking the tragic chain of events stood in a cage clutching a yellow piece of paper.

On September 1, Priscilla Prendez made her first court appearance since her arrest two days earlier in Elk Grove, where she allegedly drew an auto-theft task force on a pursuit from a Ramada Inn near the Arden-Arcade neighborhood of Sacramento. When authorities later returned to the motel to search Prendez’s second-floor room, they were met with automatic gunfire from her fugitive boyfriend.

Both Deputy French and the suspected gunman, 32-year-old Thomas Daniel Littlecloud of Castro Valley, would die of injuries sustained in the ensuing firefights. Two undercover officers with the California Highway Patrol were wounded in the attack.

A week later, at the same time that scores of grieving law enforcement professionals were attending French’s memorial service in Roseville, two Sacramento police officers narrowly escaped with their lives from a gun battle with a double-homicide suspect. The officers had trouble getting backup because so many of their colleagues were attending the fallen deputy’s service, the department said.

The two events—plus a later incident in which a police dog was lacerated when a suspect led officers on a chase through a police substation parking lot—offered reminders of the job’s unpredictable dangers. And Sacramento, as it did three years ago when a different fugitive ambushed a sheriff’s deputy outside of a motel, is faced with the difficult task of extracting lessons from a still-raw tragedy.

“It forces us to look at all our systems,” said former Sacramento police Chief Rick Braziel, who now monitors the Sheriff’s Department as the county’s inspector general. “The one thing an agency can’t do is botch an officer death.”

Nationwide, 93 peace officers have died in the line of duty as of September 13 this year, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page, up 2 percent from the same period last year. Nearly three-quarters died as a result of gunfire (33) or vehicle-related injuries (35), the page says. Overall, firearm-related deaths are down 15 percent compared to this time frame last year.

French was one of six California peace officers to die this year. According to sheriff’s officials, the deputy raced to the scene of a shooting in progress at the Ramada Inn on August 30 and took cover behind his patrol vehicle as Littlecloud raked the parking lot with automatic rifle fire.

Littlecloud had already opened fire on two undercover CHP officers who knocked on his motel room door, injuring both, before descending a second-story balcony and taking cover behind a planter. One of the bullets fired from Littlecloud’s rifle, which was described as a knockoff Kalashnikov, dug into French’s unprotected shoulder and carved a path to his heart. The 52-year-old deputy continued to return fire after he absorbed the mortal wound, said Sheriff Scott Jones.

“Even though it was a fatal round, Deputy French, exhibiting extraordinary and conspicuous bravery in the line of duty, still continued to engage the suspect, keeping him pinned down and allowing other officers to maintain positions of safety and cover,” Jones said during a September 5 press conference.

It wasn’t the first time Jones had to memorialize the heroics of a fallen officer.

In October 2014, Sacramento County sheriff’s Deputy Danny Oliver, 47, was approaching a suspicious car parked outside of an Arden Way motel when he was shot in the head. The suspect in the case, Luis Enrique Bracamontes, was an undocumented fugitive who had been previously deported. During his attempted escape, Bracamontes and his female accomplice allegedly left in their wake a wounded civilian, two carjackings and a second dead officer, Placer County sheriff’s Detective Michael Davis Jr.

Bracamontes would later surrender after authorities surrounded the Auburn home he had barricaded himself inside. He is currently on trial for both murders and an assortment of other crimes.

The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department has lost 20 officers in the line of duty since 1850, Officer Down says. More than half of the deaths were firearm-related.

The deaths of Oliver and the 42-year-old Davis prompted Sheriff Jones to begin campaigning for stricter immigration enforcement policies, which became a central tenet of his unsuccessful congressional campaign last year. Jones, who recently announced he wouldn’t be seeking a third term as sheriff, hinted that he might call for action this time as well.

Noting that Littlecloud had been released from federal custody a year ago by a judge who cleared the frequent criminal offender as a public safety risk, Jones told reporters during the September 5 press conference that he “may make a comment on that later.”

“I certainly will be following up on that as we go forward,” he added.

Sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Shaun Hampton said the department is still gathering information about Littlecloud’s prior custody and sentencing history.

In the local and state court systems, probation or parole officials make sentencing recommendations to judges based on assessments of the offenders. The federal process is a little different “because they really don’t have parole,” said Braziel, the inspector general. Someone sentenced in federal court typically has to serve the entire sentence.

Braziel said the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has developed a risk assessment tool that “is extremely accurate” in predicting which offenders are most likely to recommit crimes once released. Applying CDCR’s model, the San Francisco County Probation Department also developed an accurate tool. But that model hasn’t been adopted systemwide as Braziel thinks it should.

“It allows us to use data rather than a judge’s hunch,” Braziel said. “It’s not perfect, but it’s a lot better than what we’re doing.”

There’s a natural taking stock that happens after an officer loses his or her life, both personally and professionally, Braziel says.

According to the Alameda County Probation Department, Littlecloud was on a local probation status known as post release community supervision, or PRCS, since October 2014—the same month Oliver and Davis were killed—for being a felon in possession of a firearm and for evading arrest. He had separate warrants out for his arrest at the time local investigators knocked on his door, for violating the terms of his PRCS status and for missing a federal pretrial hearing. Friends and family had been urging Littlecloud to turn himself in, as his parents risked losing the home they put up to bond his freedom, the Sacramento Bee reported.

In answer to a reporter’s question, Jones said he didn’t have any particular insights into Littlecloud’s mindset, but the suspect’s actions spoke for themselves. “He clearly was not intending to go back to jail, and he did not go back to jail,” Jones said.

Further attacks on peace officers could renew law enforcement criticisms about California’s sentencing reform trajectory. Over the past six years, lawmakers and voters have shifted the oversight of low-level offenders to local counties and adopted numerous reforms. The Sacramento County district attorney’s office has opposed the release of 172 offenders under a couple recent reforms meant to relieve prison overcrowding by paroling nonviolent offenders.

Braziel said anyone can take a department’s tragedy and “make it very political and very emotional.” The emotions are understandable, he says. The politics should be left behind.

“We as a profession, as a society, need to dig deeper,” he said. “You take the politics out of it.”

As with just about anything involving the criminal justice system, it will take time for all of the pieces to be puzzled together into a picture making any kind of sense. For now, there’s the necessary churn of process.

Wearing glasses and dressed in a green-striped jumpsuit, Prendez appeared briefly in the jailhouse courtroom this month to be arraigned on felony charges of vehicle theft and reckless evasion. A row of TV news cameras stood to her left and three bailiffs crowded into the cell with her. The 23-year-old Oakland woman peered through the bars as the judge spoke.

“Are you able to afford your own attorney?” he asked.

“Um, no,” Prendez replied.

Supervising Public Defender Joe Cress was appointed to represent her. Another court date was set and Prendez’s bail was hiked to $150,000 at prosecutor Nicole Shaker’s request. The proceeding lasted under two minutes, after which the bailiffs spirited Prendez out of the cell through a door to a pod at the Sacramento County Main Jail, where she’s been ever since. She’s scheduled for a September 27 settlement conference.

Prendez was apprehended after allegedly leading members of an interagency task force on a pursuit from the motel to Elk Grove in a BMW stolen out of the Bay Area. Prendez was arrested on felony evasion and vehicle theft charges while a female occupant was questioned and released.

Sgt. Hampton, the sheriff’s spokesman, said officers questioned both women about whether anyone was back at the motel, but didn’t get any such indication.

“The female probationer actually refused to say anything at all,” Hampton wrote in an email about Prendez, who later told detectives that Littlecloud was her boyfriend. “The investigators had no idea there was anyone else in the room but proceeded with the same cautions they always employ when conducting probation searches.”