Seven deadly lessons

Controversial shootings forced the Sacramento Police Department to start releasing an unprecedented amount of video footage. Other agencies will soon follow suit.

Warning: The videos in this story contain graphic and disturbing content. Do not feel obligated to watch them and please be mindful of those around you if you do.

Seventy hours, 25 minutes and 56 seconds. That’s how much video footage the Sacramento Police Department has released to the public in an unprecedented show of arm-twisted transparency since January 11, 2017.

That’s after Joseph Mann changed everything—but before Stephon Clark changed everything again.

The release of body-cam video was supposed to ease the doubts, the questions, the agonizing debate about officer conduct in California’s agenda-setting capital. But elected officials were also playing catch-up. Smartphones are everywhere, turning each bystander into a potential documentarian. Often, the footage on social media corroborated what communities of color have been accused of exaggerating or making up.

And so, nearly two years into this brave new experiment, let’s consider the evidence: 292 videos, 30 audio recordings, 253,556 seconds of sights and sounds from inside the yellow police tape, before the chalk outlines the pavement.

What does the evidence show us about policing in a major American city? And where must Sacramento go from here?

Lesson 1. Almost everyone who died was black

In April 2016, Dazion Flenaugh, 40, accused of acting suspiciously in a Parkway neighborhood, bolted out of a squad car, entered a home that wasn’t his and came out brandishing kitchen knives. Two officers fired eight shots, and Flenaugh dropped into a gutter between the sidewalk and street.

In September 2017, officers attempting to pull over a double-homicide suspect at 65th and Franklin narrowly survived a barrage of handgun rounds as Eric Arnold, 38, emerged from a car firing. The officers shot back and Arnold died.

That same month, residents of a College/Glen apartment complex wrestled Erik Mencarini, 37, to the ground after he reportedly threw rocks at them. On his knees wheezing by the time an officer arrived, Mencarini lost consciousness and never woke up once the cuffs clicked.

In March, Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old father of two, was shot several times seemingly from behind while holding a cellphone in his grandparents’ backyard. The two officers who killed him had responded to a 911 call of a male subject smashing car windows in Meadowview.

In June, Brandon Smith, 30, of North Highlands, died of a methamphetamine overdose in the back of a paddy wagon on the way to jail. The following month, George Knox, 42, OD’ed the same way in the back of a patrol SUV.

Finally, this past September, a 911 report of a masked man roaming Broadway and pointing a gun at bystanders culminated four hours later with SWAT officers fatally shooting Darrell Richards, 19, in the cluttered yard of a residence. A pellet gun was recovered near the young man’s body.

Of the 17 critical incidents subjected to the department’s video-release policy—capturing everything from nonfatal shootings to questionable beat-downs to mistaken identity house raids—seven ended with a person dying. There’s no denying other connective tissue: Each of the dead were men. None were rich. Except for Mencarini, all were African-American. And six of the seven were reported to be experiencing a mental health or drug-related crisis.

If you want a silver lining, perhaps it’s this: The city’s video-release policy is forcing us to take a good, hard look in the mirror, and admit our collective failure to untangle a web of social injustices long before officers are summoned to an unpredictable scene.

“There’s issues, both historical and current issues, that we have to fix, obviously,” acknowledged police Chief Daniel Hahn, who grew up in Oak Park and inherited his department’s video release policy when he was appointed last year.

Asked if the releases have provided the opportunity for teachable moments, Hahn said the department would be “naive” if it didn’t use its relatively recent adoption of body-worn camera footage for training. But he said more has to be done. It’s one reason he has pursued different strategies for embedding new officers in the communities they’ll patrol, but may not know from life experience.

“If you’re not from the Heights, you probably don’t have the experience to fully understand life in the Heights,” is how Hahn put it about his former patrol beat covering Del Paso Heights. “To me, it’s no fault of the individual officer. … But to me it’s shame on us as an organization and probably shame on us as a community to not figure out how to better equip that brand new officer to work in that community.”

Since Clark’s death, the Sacramento City Council has considered other ways to invest in historically neglected and heavily policed neighborhoods.

Whether that changes the numbers of the dead remains to be seen.

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Lesson 2. Calling 911 can get someone killed

Over a year after he and another Sacramento police officer shot Joseph Mann more than a dozen times, John Tennis told SN&R he was positive the man he was fired for killing, at some point, held a gun.

This wasn’t based on any empirical evidence. Tennis admitted he never saw a firearm himself, and no gun was recovered from the scene, which started in front of an apartment complex in North Sacramento, where an agitated and inebriated Mann stammered nonsense and flashed a small blade. Instead, the presence of the supposed gun was based on two 911 calls—one from a man who claimed Mann pulled one from his waistband and another from a woman who said she heard about the gun from her neighbor.

Like a high-stakes game of telephone tag, that rumor was fed to officers responding that day in July 2016. Last to arrive, Tennis and partner Randy Lozoya hijacked the more measured response by their colleagues, cornered the mentally ill 50-year-old with their patrol car and filled him with bullets.

“We didn’t see the gun but … I’m convinced that he had one,” Tennis said last year. “What did he do with it? He probably tossed it. People do it all the time.”

As much as Tennis is rewriting history, we own part of this wrongheaded, alternative-fact, life-unnecessarily-lost tragedy. Words matter. Each call to 911 is a bell that can’t be unrung. And bad information can act as an accomplice to a terrible outcome.

Take the September killing of a young Sacramento County sheriff’s deputy. According to department officials, deputies Mark Stasyuk and Julie Robertson believed they were responding to a routine disturbance at a business in Rancho Cordova, with no indication from the 911 caller that they were about to confront an armed suspect, who ambushed them, killing Stasyuk and wounding Robertson before being captured.

Hahn said flawed intel originates for different reasons.

“There’s times where they’re either wrong … or … people call and say he has a gun even though they know he doesn’t have a gun because they know that will get a quicker response,” Hahn explained. “I’ve seen all of the above. But as an officer and as a dispatcher … you don’t know that. Nor would you want to take the chance that [the caller is wrong].”

Sometimes a 911 caller can do everything right and the result is still tragic.

Dave Reiling was watching TV inside his Meadowview trailer when the sound of breaking glass drew him into the nighttime street, to find a man he couldn’t quite make out near his truck, which now had a busted window. Worried about the tools in his truck and wanting to be a good citizen, Reiling called 911, did his best to give the dispatcher precise information and waited. Later, he learned that two police officers fatally shot a neighbor’s unarmed grandson in her backyard. It was Stephon Clark.

Weeks after the March 18 killing, Reiling told a Sacramento Bee reporter he regretted picking up the phone. “It makes me hesitant about calling 911 again, it really does,” he said. “Y’know, ‘cause I don’t know who’s going to get shot next time.”

Pastor Les Simmons said he recently heard the same sentiment expressed from a victim of multiple burglaries, who told him he had yet to call 911 because of fear of setting off some street-level butterfly effect.

“This person said to me, ‘This person’s life is more important than some property,'” Simmons recalled.

Think about that: A victim of a crime is protecting his perpetrator from the police. It goes without saying, but this is not the way things are supposed to work. And, yet, Simmons’ acquaintance isn’t an anomaly.

Those ShotSpotter sensors that police and sheriff’s officials have installed in certain neighborhoods to alert them to probable gunfire were developed out of national estimates that urban residents report gunshots to law enforcement less than 15 percent of the time. That suggests a social breakdown of troubling proportions.

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Lesson 3. Broken windows can lead to broken lives

It’s a Sunday night in July. A shirtless black teenager pedals his bicycle down a residential sidewalk in North Sacramento. A patrol cruiser bumping metal inside its cab idles alongside the boy. A department press release said the “male subject” was stopped for riding in the dark without a front light.

This case is Exhibit A for how the broken windows approach to policing can turn nothing encounters into near tragedies.

Local cops frequently use minor bicycle infractions to go fishing for hollow-cheeked probationers holding dope or outstanding warrants—the pretext for a legal stop-and-frisk.

In the body-cam footage, the officer riding shotgun keeps his tone light as he asks the boy’s age.

“Fifteen?” he repeats. “You look old for 15.”

“For real?” the boy says, leaning on his handlebars.

The officer eases out of the passenger side.

“What are you so worried about?” he asks, trying to sound nonchalant.

“I’m not worried,” the boy shrugs.

“You’re not tripping?” the officer says.

“No,” the boy says.

“You ever been arrested before?” the officer asks, standing now.

His partner has rounded the hood of the car, flanking the kid. He reportedly recognized the youth from a previous contact. He cross-talks over his colleague.

“You have a warrant?” he asks.

The department would later say it was this question that prompted the teen to run. Maybe. But from the footage from the officers’ body-cams, it appears the youth was responding to the furtive movements of two adults maneuvering on him.

The pursuit that follows is brief. The boy tries pedaling away, but dumps his bike when one officer briefly gets a hand on him. He runs, repeatedly shouting “shit, shit, shit.” He sounds terrified, like he’s being chased by dogs.

The officer who casually asked his age is now barking descriptions and locations into his microphone.

A police SUV accelerating toward them jumps from the street into the sidewalk, smacking into the teen’s hip at 27 mph and launching him over the hood. He somersaults across the hedges and skids to a front stoop. The officer gets out and goes to the youth. The department later said it was to render aid. The officer’s body-cam shows the dazed teen stick his arms out like he’s bracing for a beating. He keeps saying he’s sorry. Actually, he’s crying it.

Simmons told SN&R he saw his own son in the youth’s blurred face.

“This kid is begging for his life,” Simmons said, his voice starting to shake. “Man, all I can think of is my son. Just apologizing for his life.”

When the department released its video of the incident less than a month later, it was accompanied with a subtle mea culpa from Hahn, expressing gratitude that the youth wasn’t more seriously injured and suggesting this shouldn’t have happened.

“Our training is designed to prevent this sort of thing from happening,” Hahn’s statement read. “We are going to make sure our training—and the officer’s adherence to that training—is as solid as it can be.”

But the department also released a video summary of its investigation, one that essentially blamed the teen for putting himself on the same sidewalk as a police vehicle.

That’s an unusual interpretation of pedestrian right-of-way. It’s also not the first time that aggressive policing turned a minor offense into a near tragedy.

A false jaywalking allegation ended with Nandi Cain beaten and jailed last year. In May, an officer busted Craig Williams outside a 7-Eleven for the high crime of leaving his car idling in a parking lot. And Clark was suspected of literally breaking windows before he was shot dead.

We don’t know if the officers in these cases faced any internal discipline. Which brings us to our next lesson.

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Lesson 4. Some cops should not be cops

Prediction No. 1: The two officers who fatally shot Clark won’t face criminal charges.

Prediction No. 2: The public will be outraged.

By now, most people know that Sacramento County’s elected district attorney has been an automatic rubber stamp for any and all officer-involved shootings. Because of state and federal laws and court rulings, officers across California and the nation rarely face criminal charges for killing civilians.

But that’s not the only reason that communities of color, in particular, are frustrated. As far as the public can see, there has been very little accountability of any kind, great or small.

“We haven’t had too many wins,” Simmons said.

Because of powerful police officer unions, the public rarely finds out if officers are disciplined or fired for misconduct. For instance, when Mann’s killers were dismissed, Hahn could only say that they no longer worked for the department. Tennis confirmed his own firing to SN&R, freeing up the chief to share a little—not a lot—more.

“That’s accountability on the department’s behalf, what he told you,” Hahn said. “Nobody would know that, because I can’t tell anybody that—I still can’t tell anybody that.”

That could get less rare real soon. In January, a law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown will require law enforcement agencies to release previously sealed personnel records of substantiated misconduct and all uses of force or custody deaths.

Simmons called Senate Bill 1421 “a little bit of light to look forward to.”

Hahn said he is of two minds about the new law. He worries department employees and other witnesses may be reluctant to help investigators if they think their statements and recorded interviews will be released upon request. But he’s looking forward to finally being able to answer questions about whether an internal investigation results in an action the public should know about.

“I do absolutely see it as a problem to people believing there’s accountability when you literally can’t say anything,” Hahn said.

Lesson 5. The public knows when to get upset

There were no vigils for Eric Arnold. And no one protested the shooting and arrest days later of Fernando Sanchez, who rammed his vehicle through the gate of a police substation and forced his way into a nearby home before tasers finally brought him down.

In each September incident, the police department released video footage. Unlike after Stephon Clark’s slaying, community members didn’t form a human chain around the Golden 1 Center or plot a rush-hour march across I-5. The lesson, Simmons said, is that the public knows when not to be outraged, too.

“The public knows when something is off,” he said. “You see it. You feel it. You hear it.”

Hahn confirmed that his department’s video-release policy hasn’t led to a sudden spike in lawsuits. “At least in the major cases, there’s going to be legal challenges whether you release video or not,” he added.

That isn’t to say that there haven’t been other downwind effects. Just ask one of the officers who killed Clark how his wedding went.

“We’ve seen a lot more death threats after the video releases, we’ve seen people show up at weddings, we’ve seen pictures plastered all over the place, and so there’s concern for that, too,” Hahn said. “Right now, with new technology and the trust level in certain segments of our community, we end up where we’re at now. … Once that becomes more standard and that becomes more normalized, I think as with any change, over time it changes. The change changes.”

Timothy Davis, president of the Sacramento Police Officers Association, said he believes public opinion of his profession would improve if the department actually released more footage.

“We’re filming thousands of hours every single day of officers doing their job,” Davis said. These contacts where tense situations are defused and nobody is arrested, he said, “far eclipse events where deadly force is used.”

That may be, but Simmons doesn’t think the videos the department has released—covering incidents where something, sometimes everything, goes wrong—offers a distorted view of law enforcement.

“I think it gives an accurate picture of these incidents and the decisions that were made,” he said. “The larger community is demanding a deeper level of transparency and accountability, and these videos allow for it. … Now the next stage will be to hold the officers accountable … on what the public is seeing.”

Lesson 6. Police are releasing more videos that show less

Of the 70 hours and counting of footage that the department has uploaded to the cloud, precious little of it documents the precise moments of lives being lost.

The bottom line is a video-release policy doesn’t achieve true transparency if the cameras don’t start rolling until after Armani Lee is shot, or if the physical altercation that left John Hernandez brain damaged happens offscreen.

One of the most recent examples occurred in September, when a SWAT team converged on Darrell Richards under a stairwell of a cluttered residential yard near Land Park. None of the 83 videos the department released show the actual shooting. One SWAT officer accidentally turned off his body-worn camera, police say. Hahn sees your eyes rolling and says hold up.

“Yeah, if we had body cameras that could miraculously show every angle of everything, that would be great. But those don’t exist,” he said.

His point is that the public isn’t fully appreciating how new all this is, and how being one of the few police departments to chart this path means paving it yourself. So after video showed that one of the officers who shot Clark muted his mike, Hahn said, the department realized it didn’t have a policy for that and created one. And when the SWAT officer’s equipment bumped the off switch on his body camera, Hahn said, the department started MacGuyver’ing a temporary fix and is working with the camera’s manufacturer on a more permanent solution.

Following Clark’s death, the department also updated its foot pursuit policy, to prevent officers from running headlong into a situation they—mistakenly in this case—believe they need to shoot their way out of. Sure, more suspects will likely get away, he acknowledged, but that just means more people on both sides of the thin blue line will live to fight another day.

“So those are things that you learn as you go. Who knows what else we’re going to learn in the next six months?” he said. “Our commitment has to be that we try to anticipate everything, but as things come up we’re the kind of organization that is willing and able to look at ourselves and go, ‘OK how do we fix that?'”

There have been other learn-as-you-go tweaks. The first video under the policy took nine months to release and only after a very public scolding of Hahn’s predecessor. The most recent release, of the Richards incident, took nine days.

The police union’s Davis said quicker turnaround has come at a cost. Before releasing the videos to the public, the department is required to blur confidential information, sometimes requiring frame-by-frame scrubs that pull officers off the street, Davis said.

“We’re a police force. We’re not a movie studio,” he said.

It is worth noting that the department has been quicker to release video when there is competing footage leaking onto social media. After all, a bystander’s cellphone video of Mann’s shooting helped usher in this policy in the first place, more than two years ago.

For Simmons, a board member of Sacramento Area Congregations Together and student of the civil rights movement, all this feels a little too reactive. It made news when he resigned from a citizens police commission, saying it lacked authority and relevance. His departure also elbowed a foot-dragging City Hall to adopt a raft of reforms, including giving the police commission baby teeth. Police Chief Sam Somers retired, Hahn was wooed back from Roseville and the deployment of body-worn cameras soon followed.

Simmons would like to quicken that pace.

“Why does it take these critical moments like Stephon Clark to put these measures into place?” Simmons challenged. “If reform only moves on these critical moments, we’re moving too slow.”

“It’s time for us to speed up,” added Jamilia Land, a friend of the Clark family and member of the Love Not Blood Campaign. “It’s been 20 years since Rodney King. It’s been 10 years since Oscar Grant. It’s been seven months since Stephon Clark. When are we really going to push for accountability?”

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Lesson 7. You can’t close Pandora’s box

It’s a brave new world. The genie is out of the bottle. Whichever cliché you choose, police killings will no longer stay in the dark. Assembly Bill 748 will help ensure that. Starting next year, California law enforcement agencies will follow in the tentative footsteps of the Sacramento Police Department, releasing pertinent audio and video footage within 45 days of critical incidents. And let’s be honest—transparency exacts its pound of soul.

There is budding research that “relentless” exposure to police snuff footage is harmful to mental health, and accelerates black trauma. Epidemiologist Flojaune G. Cofer, the director of state policy and research for the Sacramento-based Public Health Advocates, said that while the hypothesis deserves more study, it certainly rings true for her.

“And despite being a generally curious person—epidemiologists are the researcher investigators of the public health world—I NEVER watch the videos,” she wrote in an email. “It is traumatic enough to read and hear about what happened, I think it would be more disturbing to watch someone needlessly and senselessly die in real time.”

Simmons, however, said he’s watched every video the department has released. And it’s changed him.

“I know they need to happen regardless of the personal effect on the person watching them,” he said. “They’re challenging to watch.”

Hahn thinks about that, too.

“Like if my mom got shot or my daughters got shot, I don’t know if I would go see that,” he said. “I’d want somebody to be able to see it, that I trusted, but I don’t know if it would be me.”

For now, the city’s policy remains the trail blazer. (It already inspired the LAPD to follow suit, Davis said.) Even Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones, who has spent the past several months fighting independent oversight, has acknowledged he’s waging a losing battle against greater transparency.

Previously opposed to the idea of implementing body-worn cameras, he told his community advisory board in January that he’d come around because of improvements in technology—and to stave off legislative intervention.

Then, on Monday night, hours before he was scheduled to lobby a divided Board of Supervisors to abandon independent oversight of his department, Jones released perhaps the first video of a fatal law enforcement encounter in his eight years as sheriff. The edited melange of gas station surveillance, in-car camera and jail footage depicts the October arrest of Marshall Miles for vandalizing cars in North Sacramento. Under a scrum of deputies at the jail, Marshall writhed and complained that he couldn’t breathe. He lost consciousness in his cell and died in a hospital three days later.

Even if Jones intended the video release only as a well-timed political maneuver to hold real accountability at bay, the near future—and state law—will beg to differ.

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