Questioning the prosecution

Under scrutiny and up for reelection, Schubert asks for patience while ducking questions about Stephon Clark, Joseph Mann and other officer killings

Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert gets ready to address reporters during a rare press conference.

Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert gets ready to address reporters during a rare press conference.

Photo by Raheem F. Hosseini

As we were ushered into a gray conference room on the fourth floor of the downtown building, each reporter was handed a glossy folder with a three-year-old press release inside. Which pretty much sums up what Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert divulged about her office’s handling of use of force cases during a press conference last week.

Schubert called the April 18 presser exactly one month after two police officers chased a suspected window-breaker into a residential backyard and shot the man dead. The officers, who have returned to modified duty, thought the person they were chasing had a gun. But Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old black father of two boys, just held a cellphone. And most of the eight bullets that struck Clark entered through his back, a family autopsy found.

Feeling the pressure from weekly protests outside her building and facing an increasingly uncertain reelection bid, Schubert summoned the media in an effort to appear compassionate about the loss of another black life and shift focus onto intractable social ills that can’t be put on her. She called Clark’s death “a tragedy” and paid lip service to the “opportunity gap” in communities of color, but didn’t say much more about either. Likewise, she said she wanted to clear up confusion about her office’s role in evaluating police shootings, but couldn’t answer basic follow-ups.

As one Twitter user wondered, “What was the point of this?” Good question. Here’s what we deciphered through the spin.

Schubert wouldn’t discuss Stephon Clark.

Schubert expressed her sympathy for the Clark family, but wouldn’t comment on the case itself. That’s not unusual. The DA’s office rarely comments on pending cases, and Schubert said her office hadn’t yet received the case from the Sacramento Police Department, which is investigating the shooting involving its officers. Does this mean Schubert will be more forthcoming after the Clark case is over? Her record suggests otherwise.

Schubert wouldn’t discuss the past.

OK, so Schubert wouldn’t comment on the Clark case, but did she explain her office’s handling of past use of force cases? Nope. When Capital Public Radio reporter Bob Moffitt asked Schubert about the decision not to charge the two officers who killed Joseph Mann in 2016, Schubert said she wouldn’t discuss it because her office’s review was online. When I asked her why no 2017 reviews were available online, she said she didn’t know. When I asked her whether her office has ever concluded that officers broke the law in using force but didn’t charge them anyway, she said she didn’t have the files in front of her and couldn’t answer. Wow.

Schubert says the protests aren’t peaceful.

Schubert declined a reporter’s offer to call the demonstrations outside her office unfair or misguided, but did have critical words for the enduring protests that brought barbecues, clashes with bicycle cops and thousands of pages of signed petitions to her doorstep. “If you were to see … what’s happening behind our building, when people try to leave to go home … and their cars are being surrounded and they’re being screamed at and cussed at and blocked, having their license plates be filmed, or when a victim or a witness is afraid to come into this building because they’re screaming, I think that’s not peaceful,” she said. Two days later, a fence had been erected around her office.

The DA’s office doesn’t actually investigate police use of force.

The idea that it does is a common misconception, and one that both law enforcement agencies and the DA’s office often let slide. Why? Because it makes the system sound more independent than it actually is. Here’s what really happens: Most of the time, the law enforcement agency employing the officer who used force is the one to investigate whether said force was justified. That’s because most cops are working their beats when confrontations happen. Once investigators wrap up their investigation, they send it to the DA for review. So basically the DA is just checking other people’s homework.

Schubert said her investigators have the authority to seek additional information and conduct their own interviews, but couldn’t cite an example where that’s actually happened. She said her staff could research the question and get back to me, which sort of happened. On Tuesday, Schubert’s spokeswoman emailed me to say they weren’t going to provide specifics.

Does it have to be this way?

No. Case in point: California Attorney General Xavier Becerra is reserving the right to review Schubert’s review of the Clark shooting. Schubert mentioned other proposals, including Assemblyman Kevin McCarty’s failed bill to create an independent state agency under the California attorney general’s purview, or a regional law enforcement team to investigate police violence. But she stopped short of supporting any alternative to the way things are now.

The same-old, same-old has created a system where Sacramento’s DA hasn’t prosecuted a law enforcement killing of a civilian in at least 30 years. Longer, in fact, but Schubert’s office wouldn’t provide information about what happened before she was elected. Fine then. Since taking office in 2015, Schubert’s office has cleared more than two dozen officer-involved shootings and deaths in custody. But hey, it could be worse, Schubert suggested.

“There is no legal obligation for any district attorney across the state, no legal obligation for us to conduct these [use of force] reviews,” Schubert said. “If the district attorney does not do these reviews, no one does. That’s the system that we have now.”

And Schubert is the DA Sacramento has. For now.