Oscar and Stephon
The ghosts of Oscar Grant and Stephon Clark loomed large inside California’s state Capitol last week
Oscar Grant was horsing around with a buddy on an Oakland-bound BART train when a fellow passenger mistook their play fighting for a real one between rival gang members and phoned it in, said his uncle. It was barely 2009 as the train lurched into Fruitvale station. Sharing the train car with friends and the mother of his child, Grant thought he was going home. Then things went off the rails.
Minutes later, Grant was bleeding out from a BART officer’s bullet in his back. Hours later, shaky cellphone video of the tragic police shooting were circulating online. Days later, Oakland residents roiled from the horrific novelty of it all—cinema verite of a cop killing someone who looked, lived, laughed like them.
Now, a decade later, a similar story is still unfolding 90 miles north, in Sacramento.
As the public waits to see whether the Sacramento County district attorney’s office formally charges the two officers who killed Stephon Clark last year, the families of Clark and Grant lobbied for a future in which such deaths don’t occur.
It ‘started with Oscar’
Wearing a black fedora and a “California Families United 4 Justice” sweatshirt, Cephus Johnson last week stood with lawmakers and relatives of police shooting victims, including Clark’s, to reassert their case for stricter officer accountability.
A similar effort fizzled last year against law enforcement opposition. Johnson, known back home as “Uncle Bobby,” is hoping that Assembly Bill 392 will succeed where its predecessor failed—and add to the legacy of a young man whose killing helped change public perception surrounding the use of force.
“We can talk about the Rodney King incident, but really videos didn’t take off at that time,” Johnson told SN&R in December, when AB 392 was already being planned. “However, because of what happened to Oscar and the commuters on the train pulling out their cameras just being appalled at what they were seeing … and then taking [to] social media as an avenue to advertise to the world what they just witnessed … really just brought to light how important lapel cameras and dashcams in police vehicles can become.”
The idea to require law enforcement agencies to adopt body-worn cameras “really started with Oscar,” Johnson added.
Increased transparency hasn’t increased accountability, however, say the Democratic lawmakers behind AB 392.
“Current police accountability laws do not work,” Assemblyman Kevin McCarty of Sacramento, who coauthored the bill, said during last week’s Capitol press conference. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, we know, law enforcement officers do not cross the line in regards to excessive force. But when the 1 percent happens, we all deserve accountability. And under current law, accountability rarely happens.”
Pessimistic about DA decision
There is a growing sense of resignation that District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert will absolve the officers who killed Clark, given current state laws and court decisions. More than a dozen demonstrators gathered at Cathedral Square on Tuesday for an event called “We Already Know.” Here’s how organizers described the assembly:
"#WeAlreadyKnow we will see no accountability for the death of Stephon Clark. We knew the moment when the officers responsible for his death, went back to work. We knew when the city ‘began to meet with city leaders', they were going to give us the wrong decision. We know all of this because there have been countless examples of injustice when it comes to police terror in this city. Why are we going to wait for a disappointment, when we can start to demand justice today. We need all hands on deck as we together say, ‘No. This isn’t going to be business as usual.”
Currently, use of force cases are most often investigated by the officers’ own agencies, and then evaluated for criminal wrongdoing by elected DAs. Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg suggested last week he’d support a legislative effort to change this approach.
“The more independent the reviews in other incidents, the more faith people will have in whatever the outcome is,” he said during a press conference regarding a state audit of the city’s Police Department.
The bill that McCarty and Assemblywoman Shirley Weber of San Diego introduced would make it somewhat easier to prosecute officers who fatally shoot unarmed civilians. Current law allows officers to defend their actions based on their perceived threat of danger, whether that threat is real or not. That legal standard has made the prosecution of officers extremely rare—and convictions even rarer.
“We’re the only family in the state of California that actually had an officer arrested, charged, convicted and sent to jail,” Johnson noted.
An Oakland jury found former BART officer Johannes Mehserle guilty of involuntary manslaughter. He ended up serving one year of a two-year sentence.
AB 392 wouldn’t completely overhaul the paradigm so much as block the officer from using the defense if he or she acted with criminal negligence.
Based on data collected by the California Department of Justice, altering the standard could make a difference. In 2017, peace officers in the state fired their guns or used force resulting in serious injury or death in 707 instances. While officers perceived civilians to be armed in 61 percent of these encounters, weapons were confirmed in only 47 percent.
The main reason officers gave for using force was to take someone into custody, which represented 47 percent of these encounters. Overcoming resistance was the second most common reason, at 26 percent.
Transparency without accountability
At last week’s press conference, Johnson said his nephew would still be alive today if AB 392 had been on the books then.
“He was restrained, cooperative and still was shot in the back because Officer Mehserle perceived that he had a gun,” Johnson said. “He had no gun. He was perceived armed and that was his death ticket.”
That was also the circumstance for Clark, whom officers believed to be carrying a gun when they fired nearly 20 rounds at him in his grandmother’s backyard in Meadowview last March. Police later determined that Clark was holding a cellphone.
While law enforcement agencies last year blocked Weber and McCarty from advancing a similar bill through direct lobbying, this year they’ve switched tactics. The Peace Officers Research Association of California announced it will sponsor competing legislation in the state Senate to standardize use of force training and guidelines. The new strategy suggests that law enforcement groups believe they can’t prevent new use of force laws; the best they can hope to do is water them down.
The reintroduction of a use of force bill comes months after then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation requiring law enforcement agencies to adopt video-release policies similar to the one the Sacramento Police Department ushered in two years ago. But families of victims of police violence say transparency without accountability only deepens their sense of loss.
“It’s feeding the culture,” said Jamilia Land, a friend of the Clark family and member of California Families United 4 Justice coalition.
By that, she means the footage of people being killed by law enforcement starts to feel exploitative when there are no consequences for wrongfully taking someone’s life. It’s as if, she and Johnson say, officers can kill with impunity.
“If we don’t have any accountability measures in place, I don’t care how much the camera and audio reveal, it doesn’t mean anything,” Johnson said. “So of course the community is still pained because we got transparency, but we got no accountability.”