One year after Sacramento police shot and killed an unarmed black man, District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert announced that the officers “acted lawfully under the circumstances” and would not be criminally charged. ‘Justice,’ if it is served at all in the case, will have to be served in the civil rather than the criminal justice system.
Here’s a timeline of events:
On March 18, 2018, police pursued 22-year-old Stephon Clark, who officers said was a ‘vandalism suspect.’ Their pursuit ended in Clark’s grandmother’s backyard. Police fired 20 shots at Clark, hitting him at least 7 times. In Clark staggers sideways and falls on his stomach as the officers continue shooting. At what point did he stop being ‘dangerous?’ According to the officers, Clark’s cell phone was mistaken for a gun.
On October 25, 2018, the Sacramento Police Department announced that it had completed its investigation and would pass the results to the District Attorney’s office and the California Department of Justice.
On January 28, 2019, Clark’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the police officers and the City of Sacramento. On the same day, the DA’s Office announced that new information was received and more time would be necessary to determine whether criminal charges were appropriate in the case. No ‘new information’ was made public at that time.
On Saturday, Sacramento County Dist. Atty. Anne Marie Schubert announced she would not charge the officers criminally. Here’s what she had to say:
“We must recognize that they are often forced to make split-second decisions and we must recognize that they are under tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving circumstances."
Schubert shared evidence leading up to the shooting. She indicated that Clark was a troubled young man with a history as a domestic abuser. She said that phone records showed text messages from Clark to his girlfriend threatening to kill himself and that he searched over a dozen websites about suicide. Clark’s toxicology report showed traces of alcohol and drugs.
The decision to release this personal information is causing controversy. What does any of this information have to do with the shooting of an unarmed man? Did Stephon Clark pose a danger to police or not? Shouldn’t that be the only test of officer reasonableness here? Are these (what Schubert called ‘state of mind’) issues being disclosed for any reason other than to attempt to justify the shooting?
One positive development comes in the wake of what is becoming an all-too-familiar tragedy in black communities. Legislation has been proffered that would change the standards of justification for police officer use of deadly force. Under the proposed bill, officers would be required to first seek a reasonable, non-lethal alternative. They would be permitted to fire only when circumstances make it “necessary.” The bill was advanced last year, failed, and a new version has been re-introduced in the current session.
This tragedy and its aftermath serve as a painful reminder that our country still has a long way to go to achieve racial justice and equality. I, for one, would like to stop hearing about cases when someone, usually a black man, loses his life because a police office misjudged the danger he or she faced. The law enforcement community needs to reevaluate its standards, train officers in de-escalation procedures and search for alternatives to pulling a trigger. Deadly force should be a remote or last alternative, not the standard. Protect and serve must be more than a motto— the law enforcement community must change its culture and advocate for legislation and policies that protect everyone, regardless of race, religion, or political beliefs. Citizens must speak up in their own communities, keep a dialogue going and communicate with local law enforcement officials. Communication between police and citizens may be the most important tool available to bring about change and prevent needless tragedy.
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