Sacramento Videos Raise More Questions About Clark Case

Sacramento police released 52 videos and one audio file of the Stephon Clark shooting, showing several instances of officers muting their body-worn microphones and raising questions about the length of time it took law enforcement to render medical aid.

Sacramento police released 52 videos and one audio file of the Stephon Clark shooting, showing several instances of officers muting their body-worn microphones and raising questions about the length of time it took law enforcement to render medical aid, the Sacramento Bee reports. Clark, 22, was shot by two Sacramento police officers on March 18 in the backyard of his grandparents’ house. He was unarmed and holding a cellphone, which officers apparently mistook for a gun. The shooting set off weeks of protests and calls for police reforms in Sacramento to address what many see as bias in the policing of African-American and ethnic communities.

Video released Monday confirms officers waited about five minutes from the time Clark was shot before they approached his body. They then spent about one minute handcuffing and searching him before beginning to administer CPR. By the time fire department rescue workers were cleared by police to enter the scene, it appears that Clark already was dead. A fire department medic can be heard in another video of the same time frame saying, “We’re fixed and dilated here,” an apparent reference to Clark being nonresponsive. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist hired by the family to do an independent autopsy, estimated Clark likely survived between three and 10 minutes after being shot eight times by officers in the neck, torso and leg. “The five minutes’ lapse in time, I’m not sure if it would have saved the life of Stephon Clark, but it would have increased the chances,” said Rashid Sidqe, a police reform activist. “We are looking for a response from the chief whether or not (officers) followed proper protocol, and if they did, how can we make the necessary changes so this doesn’t happen to another member of our community.”


Increase in Police Shootings Linked to High Gun Ownership

Officers “need to be conscious of the fact that literally every single person they come in contact with may be carrying a concealed firearm,” says John Jay College criminologist David Kennedy. According to and University of Chicago criminologist John Roman, the stronger the gun control laws, the fewer police killings.

When Sacramento police officers confronted Stephon Clark in his grandmother’s backyard, they believed he was holding a gun; it actually was a cellphone. Officers have shot people after mistaking wrenches and badges for guns. Cops have shot people thinking that they’re reaching for a firearm when they’re pulling up loose-fitting shorts and that a toy gun was a real firearm. Behind these incidents lies what seems to be a constant fear that a gun may be present.

Officers “need to be conscious of and are trained to be conscious of the fact that literally every single person they come in contact with may be carrying a concealed firearm,” says criminologist David Kennedy of John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “That’s true for a 911 call. It’s true for a barking dog call. It’s true for a domestic violence incident. It’s true for a traffic stop. It’s true for everything.”

This is one potential reason that the U.S. has far more police shootings than other developed nations. and John Roman of NORC at the University of Chicago, studied the data and found that weaker gun laws and higher rates of gun ownership correlate with more killings by police officers. That suggests that it may be prudent to start thinking of police killings as inherently linked to the nation’s gun prevalence.

Vox and Roman used the Washington Post database of police killings to compare incident rates for each state with the state’s population, a composite score for state’s gun control laws (based on a National Rifle Association database), and gun ownership rates (based on a 2013 national survey). There is a correlation between killings by police officers and states’ gun control laws and gun ownership rates. The stronger the gun control laws, the fewer police killings. The higher the gun ownership rates, the more police killings.

According to the Post’s data base, as of April 5, 294 people have been shot and killed so far in 2018, as of April 5.


NYC Police Shooting Puts Focus on Local Officer Plan

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio touts a neighborhood policing program where officers get to know local residents. They aren’t the same officers who may get involved in shooting neighborhood figures they do not know.

The fatal police shooting of a mentally ill Brooklyn man raises questions about New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s neighborhood policing program, reports the New York Times. Saheed Vassell was known as an idiosyncratic local figure. Plainclothes anti-crime officers who answered a smartphone alert for someone waving a silver gun on Wednesday didn’t know him at all. Police officials argued it hardly mattered which officers answered the call or what training they had. Any officers facing what appeared to be a gun aimed at them (it actually was a pipe) would have little choice but to fire,  officials said. Security camera videos showed Vassell, 34, startling people on the street and jabbing the pipe into one man’s chest.

The killing may reveal the shortcomings of a local policing program that de Blasio has pitched as a cure for excessive police force, but which may play no role in the hurried encounters that determine whether someone lives or dies. Community policing officers focus on meeting residents and getting to know their concerns. They are often not the ones rushing to reports of armed people or stickups in progress. The officers who answer those fast-moving calls — many of them part of specialty units, like the anti-crime officers who responded Wednesday — have little more to go on than a dispatcher’s relay of a 911 call and what they see in front of them. Protesters marched on Thursday in response to Vassell’s killing. They said officers acted too quickly in dealing with a man whose mental illness was well known. Too often, skeptics of the mayor’s plan say, that means someone who looks dangerous but actually needs help is met with an onrush of officers who know nothing about him.


Why the Prosecutor’s Role in Officer-Involved Deaths Has Become Critical

When police kill unarmed civilians, the path towards accountability begins with prosecutors. Elected to serve their communities as the chief law enforcement official, they have the means and mandate to confront the injustices that arise from systemic racism, writes the director of John Jay’s Institute for Innovation in Prosecution.

As California Attorney General Xavier Becerra begins overseeing the investigation of the killing of Stephon Clark, the 22-year-old African-American father of two shot by police in his grandmother’s backyard in Sacramento, Ca., nearly two weeks ago, an important question should be on the minds of every American.

If the investigation finds evidence of misconduct, how likely is there to be a charge, let alone a conviction?

The track record of officer-involved fatalities in the United States suggests the answer: Not likely.

Approximately 1,000 lives are lost at the hands of U.S. law enforcement every year, a number that has remained remarkably consistent. Every week, there are new reports of officer-involved fatalities from across the country. Earlier this week, the New York Police Department shot and killed a man in Brooklyn.

And still, over the course of a decade, from 2005 to 2015, only 54 officers nationwide were criminally charged, with nearly half of these cases resulting in acquittals or dismissals.

How can that be when, in most of these cases, there is ample evidence—hard data, and even live video—of the extent of force used?

This paradox was addressed recently by 35 experts participating in the launch of a new working group on officer-involved fatalities at the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution (IIP) at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Comprised of prosecutors, directly impacted individuals, police, academics, and activists from around the nation, the group was formed to address the prosecutor’s role in dealing with these incidents—and in particular to devise and implement mechanisms of accountability.

Such an effort couldn’t be more crucial.

Prosecutors wield significant power in the criminal justice system. They have discretion over charging, pre-trial recommendations and plea conditions, and their decisions affect a case at nearly every stage of the criminal justice process. Yet, as the figures cited above demonstrate, even with this significant power, prosecutors have found it challenging to charge and convict police officers for excessive use of force.

The working group identified various obstacles to accountability. For example, most state statutes require a “standard of reasonableness” when evaluating the use of force by law enforcement. Another example: the public, the media and, often, jury pools are inclined to offer the benefit of the doubt to law enforcement while criminalizing those killed. Moreover, the process is stymied by systemically racist policies and practices, and a culture that impedes transparency.

The working group—including the prosecutors and police who participated—took these challenges as opportunities for reform, rather than as excuses.

There was widespread consensus that, as communities demand justice for the victims and families of police violence, prosecutors—as democratically elected officials directly accountable to the communities they serve—have the opportunity and the mandate to use their platform to demand accountability, both within the legal system and beyond it.

To do this, prosecutors must partner with those whose deep awareness of the absence of accountability can show the path forward. In other words, those who have lost loved ones to police violence.

As one directly impacted family member said during the working group discussions, “We become the experts unwillingly …We study this because we can’t sleep at night.”

That tragic “expertise” has motivated the victims of police violence to address the systemic inequities of the criminal justice system. We should join them.

Communities, particularly communities of color, that are disproportionately affected by excessive police use-of-force tend also to be those bearing the brunt of policies and practices that contribute to mass incarceration. The over-criminalization of communities of color cannot be separated from the disproportionately high rate of force that these communities experience at the hands of law enforcement.

Philando Castile was stopped in his car nearly 50 times before July 6, 2016. Eric Garner was reported to have been selling individual cigarettes when the police were called on July 17, 2014, though the cigarettes were never found.

According to Baltimore Police Department (BPD) data from January 2010 to May 2015 that the U.S. Department of Justice examined, BPD officers stopped 410 pedestrians at least 10 times. Some 95 percent of these pedestrians were black, although just 60 percent of the city’s population is black.

If officers did not routinely stop—and if prosecutors did not routinely charge—people of color for crimes that arguably pose no significant risk to public safety, perhaps we could expect fewer fateful encounters.

And if law enforcement did not routinely stop and prosecute people of color, perhaps they would stop feeding the myth of the “inherent danger” that people of color pose to public safety.

The belief in this inherent danger is tied to an implicit bias that is manifested in a variety of ways.

“Black male, maybe 20,” is how the Cleveland officer referred to Tamir Rice after he arrived at the playground and shot the 12-year-old within seconds of seeing him brandish what later proved to be a toy gun.

Stephon Clark

Stephon Clark/Facebook Photo via Wikipedia

The two Sacramento officers who shot Stephon Clark explained afterwards that they “fear[ed] for their safety.” Responding to reports of someone breaking into parked cars with a toolbar, they described Clark as advancing towards them with an “object” in his hand. The officers fired ten rounds each at him. The object was a cell phone.

The racial stereotyping that leads police to automatically assume the worst when they are involved in a tense confrontation with individuals of color surprised none of the members of the working group.

As a directly impacted family member observed during the working group discussion, “We have to say Black Lives Matter today because of this country’s history … The legacy of the Three-Fifths rule is [evident] in how we are [criminalized, and how no one is held accountable] when our lives are taken.”

One conclusion seems inescapable: The path towards accountability for officer-involved fatalities and excessive police use of force must move beyond body cameras and de-escalation training to confront the injustices that arise from systematic racism, both past and present.

As the chief local law enforcement and democratically elected official, a prosecutor has both the means and the mandate to do just that.

There already are instructive examples around the nation:

  • In Washington State and California, prosecutors are using their platforms to support calls for reform of the “standard of reasonableness” statutes.
  • Campaign Zero, whose website describes it as a “research collaborative collecting comprehensive data on police killings nationwide to quantify the impact of police violence in communities,” harnesses the power of data science to develop new policies and practices in partnership with police departments.
  • Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, in Baltimore, offers useful suggestions for exploring alternative paths to accountability by using independent community-centered tools.

And lessons are being learned even in those cases where justice has yet to be found.

John Choi

John Choi

The jury in the Philando Castile case did not convict the officer who was charged with killing him. But the investigation and prosecution, led by County Attorney John Choi of Minnesota’s Ramsey County, provided vital lessons for the field.

Choi, who participated in the working group discussion, was asked by the mother of a victim of police violence about his continuing relationship with Castile’s family. He responded with an anecdote.

After the trial, Castile’s mother presented Choi with her son’s “Certificate of Class Completion” for a driving-diversion program established to help those whose licenses had been suspended due to unpaid fines and fees drive legally again. The program was launched when Choi had been Saint Paul’s City Attorney.

Meg Reiss

Meg Reiss

Showing the group a picture of the driving certificate, Choi said he lamented the fact that, while he had been able to help Castile in one aspect of the justice system, he was ultimately unable to achieve justice for him, his family, and his community in his death.

It’s the kind of humility and compassion that can help prosecutors build–and fight for–means of accountability that recognize the humanity and dignity of victims, families, and communities directly affected by police violence.

Prosecutors have the platform. And they are starting to use it.

Meg Reiss is executive director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She welcomes comments from readers.


NY Officers Mistake Pipe for Gun, Shoot Man to Death

The victim is described as a quirky neighborhood charter. “Everybody just knows he’s just mentally challenged. This shouldn’t have happened at all,” says one local resident.

New York City police officers responding to reports of a man threatening people with a gun fatally shot a man carrying a metal pipe, mistaking it for a firearm. It happened just before 5 p.m. Wednesday in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn after three 911 callers said a “man was pointing a silver firearm at people on the street,” according to NYPD Chief of Department Terence Monahan, the Associated Press reports. Five officers, three in plainclothes and two in uniform, encountered a man matching the description in the 911 calls. “The suspect took a two-handed shooting stance and pointed an object at the approaching officers, two of whom were in uniform, said Monahan.

Four of the officers then fired a total of 10 rounds, striking the man, who was later found to be holding a “pipe with some sort of knob at the end,” he said. The New York Daily News identified the man shot as Saheed Vassell, 34. Andre Wilson, 38, told the Daily News that he has known Vassell for 20 years, describing him as a quirky neighborhood character. Wilson said, “The officers from the neighborhood, they know him. He has no issue with violence. Everybody just knows he’s just mentally challenged. This shouldn’t have happened at all.” The shooting comes after the police killing of unarmed black man Stephon Clark on March 18 in Sacramento led to two weeks of protests and calls for police reform.


CA May Consider Curbing Police Shooting

Legislation proposed after the killing of Stephon Clark in Sacramento would change the current “reasonable force” rule to a “necessary force” standard. That means officers would be allowed to shoot only if there were no other reasonable alternatives to the use of deadly force.

Several California legislators and the family of a 22-year-old unarmed black man fatally shot by police are proposing Tuesday that California become the first state to significantly restrict when officers can open fire, the Associated Press reports. The proposed legislation would change the current “reasonable force” rule to a “necessary force” standard. That means officers would be allowed to shoot only if “there were no other reasonable alternatives to the use of deadly force” to prevent imminent serious injury or death, said the American Civil Liberties Union’s Lizzie Buchen, whose organization is among the groups behind the bill. The goal is to encourage officers to defuse confrontations or use less-lethal weapons, said Terry Schanz, a spokesman for Assemblyman Kevin McCarty of Sacramento.

The proposal comes after two Sacramento police officers chased Stephon Clark, who was suspected of breaking into cars, into his grandparents’ backyard. They say they shot him because they thought he had a gun; investigators found only a cellphone. California’s current standard makes it rare for police officers to be charged for a shooting and rarer still for them to be convicted. Frequently it’s because of the doctrine of reasonable fear: If prosecutors or jurors believe officers have a reason to fear for their safety, they can use lethal force. The proposed standard could require officers to delay confronting a suspect they fear may be armed until backup arrives or to give explicit verbal warnings that the suspect will be killed unless he or she drops the weapon. Officers fatally shot 162 people in California last year, only half of whom were armed with guns.


Black Lives Matter: ‘Be on Lookout’ For More Protests Over Clark Shooting

The group warned Sunday of more protests this week as the Sacramento Sheriff’s office issued a statement on an incident involving a protester hit by a police SUV during Stephon Clark’s funeral. An autopsy report found Clark, 22, was shot in the back.

As Sacramento continues to deal with public anger over the shooting death of  Stephon Clark, the city’s Black Lives Matter group issued an alert to “Be on the look out”  for more rallies and protests this week.

Meanwhile, the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department released a statement saying an incident in which a a sheriff’s SUV struck a protester Saturday night at Clark’s funeral occurred after protesters were “yelling while pounding and kicking the vehicles’ exterior.”

The incident is under investigation by the California Highway Patrol while the department conducts an internal review, Sgt. Shaun Hampton, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office said in the statement. It was not immediately clear whether any disciplinary measures would be taken, reports The Chicago Tribune.

“He never even stopped. It was a hit and run,” said Wanda Cleveland, the victim who was struck. “If I did that I’d be charged. It’s disregard for human life.”

The collision occurred at “slow speeds” and the department vehicle suffered scratches, dents and a shattered rear window that was caused by vandals and was unrelated to the collision, according to Hampton.

Clark, an unarmed black man was shot six times in the back and eight times total by Sacramento police officers, according to a private autopsy released Friday by his family’s legal team.

The finding increased tensions in a city already on edge over the shooting of the unarmed black man, reports the Sacramento Bee.

“We will continue to demand justice for not just Stephon, but for all lives that have been unjustly taken at the hands of law enforcement,” the Black Lives Matter group said on its Facebook page Sunday.

The autopsy review concluded that Clark was facing a house with his left side to officers when they opened fire and hit him first in the left side. The force of that round spun him around with his back to officers, and six rounds penetrated his back as he moved forward, the Clark legal team said. The last shot struck his left thigh area as Clark was falling or had fallen.

The finding increased tensions in a city already on edge over the shooting of the unarmed black man, reports the Sacramento Bee.

Clark’s family attorney Benjamin Crump said the autopsy “affirms that Stephon was not a threat to police and was slain in another senseless police killing under increasingly questionable circumstances.”

The review was conducted by prominent pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu, the former chief medical examiner in San Joaquin County known for his research on football concussions. 

Clark, 22, was killed after Sacramento police received reports of a car burglar. Two officers followed him into the backyard of his grandparents’ home, where they ordered him to show his hands. One officer is heard saying “gun” before officers fired 20 shots at Clark, according to body camera video. He was found to be carrying only a cellphone.

“The proposition that he was facing the officers is inconsistent with the prevailing forensic evidence,” the pathologist said. Omalu said it took 3 to 10 minutes for Clark to die: “It was not an instant death.” Activists and family members criticized the two officers for waiting to render medical aid.

This summary was prepared from news reports by TCR reporter Megan Hadley.


Four Months of Silence After Park Police Fatal Shooting

Why has the U.S. Park Police failed to explain its fatal shooting of an unarmed motorist in Virginia, the Washington Post asks.

More than four months have passed since Bijan Ghaisar was a young man fatally shot by U.S. Park Police in northern Virginia. He had no known mental illness. And to all appearances — a clear dash-cam video shows two Park Police officers opening fire at him — there was no reason police should have drawn their weapons, let alone pointed them at him, to say nothing of pulling the trigger, says the Washington Post in an editorial. The Park Police have said next to nothing about Ghaisar’s death. They have offered the public, and Ghaisar’s family, no defense, no rationale and no remorse, nor even released the names of the two officers, who are on administrative leave. The FBI, which is handling the investigation, is closemouthed.

The sequence of events that led to Ghaisar’s shooting is bizarre and does nothing to dispel the impression that his death was needless, the Post says. He left the scene of a hit-and-run accident in which he was the victim. When Ghaisar’s Jeep Grand Cherokee was pursued by the Park Police, he twice pulled over and then twice pulled away again, defying the officers who ordered him from his car. He should have complied with police orders, but what were they doing in the first place pursuing him with brandished weapons after an incident that was no more than a minor fender bender? The officers’ conduct seemed at odds with good and standard police procedures, which strongly discourage pursuits unless the public would be at risk from a fleeing suspect, the Post says. Officers fired nine bullets at Ghaisar, hitting him four times in the head. A man is dead. Why?


Feds Slow to Mobilize Police Shooting Counts

Both the FBI and the Bureau of Justice Statistics years ago vowed to improve their counting of police shootings of civilians, but it’s not clear when that will be accomplished.

A deadly police shooting of an unarmed black man in Sacramento again raised the question of how many people do police kill each year? An FBI effort in 2015 to track the number of people killed by police in the U.S. could begin gathering national data next year, but there is no set timetable. Another effort by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics to count arrest-related deaths was supposed to begin in 2016 but has yet to do so, the Wall Street Journal reports. Federal agencies began drawing up plans for tallies amid mass protests over the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. FBI spokesman Stephen Fischer said the bureau doesn’t have a precise timetable for the nationwide data-collection program. The bureau tested its system with 100 police agencies last year and is analyzing the results. It could begin as soon as 2019, hinging on bureaucratic approvals and the ability to recruit enough police departments, said Doug Middleton, who chairs the FBI committee overseeing the use-of-force data collection. He said 1,600 of the 18,000 U.S. law-enforcement agencies have agreed to submit data.

The data could help identify trends and inform police agencies about what kind of training to give officers, Middleton said. BJS said it would outline what it proposes to do in coming weeks. In the past, the federal government has counted police killings in piecemeal fashion. The Wall Street Journal found that among 105 of the largest police departments, 45 percent of killings by officers went unreported to the FBI between 2007 and 2012. The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that federal agencies undercounted by about half the number of arrest-related deaths between 2003 and 2009. The Washington Post and The Guardian began keeping their own tallies. The number of deadly police shootings has been nearly 1,000 annually for the past three years, says the Post.


Chief Calls LA Police Video ‘Shocking,’ Fires Officer

Baton Rouge police released graphic video of the Alton Sterling shooting, including officer-worn body camera footage that offered a more complete account of the deadly encounter that ignited national protests two summers ago. Police Chief Murphy Paul called the video “shocking to the conscience” and fired one of the officers involved.

Baton Rouge police released a graphic video of the Alton Sterling shooting, including officer-worn body camera footage that offered a more complete account of the deadly encounter that ignited national protests two summers ago, The Advocate reports. The recordings show a disturbing struggle in which Officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II sought to subdue Sterling outside the Triple S Food Mart. The officers had been responding to a 911 call that a man matching Sterling’s description had threatened someone with a gun. The materials also included surveillance video from the convenience store, which showed Salamoni quickly becoming physical with Sterling, placing him in a headlock within seconds of arriving on the scene and drawing his service weapon almost immediately after.

Police Chief Murphy Paul described the newly released footage as “shocking to the conscience,” even though it does not “tell the whole story of the investigation.” The chief fired Salamoni on Friday, saying the officer disregarded the department’s “training and organizational standards.” Paul suspended Lake for three days. On his body camera video, Salamoni can be heard shouting profanities at Sterling from the beginning of the encounter, threatening to shoot Sterling in the head if he fails to place his hands on the hood of a vehicle. Sterling seems confused at times, asking the officers, “What I did, sir?” and, seconds later, telling them they are hurting his arm. A use-of-force expert, Ken E. Williams, a former homicide detective in Massachusetts, said Salamoni’s language is disturbing but ultimately has little bearing on whether the shooting was justified. “The police perceived they had stopped the right person,” Williams said. “It’s unfortunate Mr. Sterling didn’t say to the officer, ‘Hey, I got a gun in my back pocket.’ That might have de-escalated matters.”