Amid Mass Protests, Sacramento Police Release Video of Unarmed Man's Fatal Shooting
By Sarah Parvini, Monte Morin and Richard Winton
In the face of growing public tension, Sacramento police have released video footage of officers fatally shooting an unarmed black man in his backyard after a chaotic nighttime pursuit last weekend.
"Show me your hands! Gun, gun, gun!" an officer shouts in one video before he and his partner fire repeatedly at a dark figure. When the gunfire ends, a haze of gray smoke swirls in the beam of their flashlights. "Shots fired!" the officer shouts. "He's down."
The officers, who said they thought 22-year-old Stephon Clark was pointing a gun at them in the darkness, fired a total of 20 rounds during the encounter. But no gun was found.
"The only item found near the suspect was a cellphone," the Police Department said a statement.
Police have not identified the officers involved in the shooting, nor have they publicly named the dead man. But in the shooting's aftermath, relatives and community members have identified him and have criticized the department, saying it was Clark who had the most to fear from officers, not the other way around.
Anger over the shooting drew hundreds of protesters to City Hall on Thursday, where members of Black Lives Matter and other activists condemned the incident as yet another case of officers shooting an unarmed black person.
Protesters blocked streets and for a while closed down Interstate 5. The demonstrators also blocked access to the Golden 1 Center, preventing some fans from attending a Sacramento Kings game. The protests prompted officials to stop admission to the game, which went on, but with relatively few in the stands.
Mayor Darrell Steinberg, according to a report in the Sacramento Bee, said he understood the public's reaction but called for calm.
"I urge our community to remain peaceful, to respect one another, to try and be extra kind to each other," Steinberg said. "Let us channel our anguish into healing and to justice."
Among those who have condemned the shooting are Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. A candlelight vigil for Clark has been planned for Friday night near where the shooting occurred.
"The Sacramento Police Department recognizes the significance of this incident and the impact it has on our community," the department wrote on its Facebook page Wednesday. "We are committed to providing timely information and communicating openly with our community."
The recordings released by the department include the original 911 call about a man breaking car windows that police had responded to Sunday night. The video footage came from the body cameras worn by the two officers who encountered Clark, as well as from a sheriff's helicopter that hovered overhead.
In a statement, police said that more audio and video footage would be released "in the near future."
The deadly encounter occurred behind the home that relatives said Clark shared with his grandparents and siblings. The 911 caller told police that a man had "busted both my truck windows out, and he's in people's backyards right now." The caller said the man was wearing a black hoodie.
The officers arrived in the neighborhood at 9:13 p.m., the department said. About 9:25 p.m., the sheriff's helicopter spotted a man in a backyard and told police that the suspect had picked up a "toolbar" and broken a window to a home. As the man climbed a fence and entered another yard, the pilot directed officers to his location.
Video taken from the helicopter appeared to show Clark scaling a tall fence and peering into a vehicle before running into his backyard, where officers pursued and shot him.
Shaky body cam footage shows officers running up a dark driveway with flashlights. "Hey! Show me your hands! Stop! Stop!" an officer yells. As the patrolmen run into a backyard, they turn a corner and spot Clark in the glare of their flashlights. The officers take temporary cover behind the corner and then confront the suspect once more. This time, an officer yells at Clark to show his hands, then begins shouting, "Gun, gun, gun!" Gunfire then erupts.
A department statement said that "prior to the shooting, the involved officers saw the suspect facing them, advance forward with his arms extended, and holding an object in his hands. At the time of the shooting, the officers believed the suspect was pointing a firearm at them."
The department's rapid release of audio and video footage follows a 2016 vote by the Sacramento City Council ordering police to release all video from an officer-involved shooting, in-custody death or complaint to the Office of Public Safety Accountability within 30 days -- except in cases where release of the video would hamper or taint an ongoing investigation.
The decision to compel release of the videos followed a series of controversial incidents, including one in July 2016 in which two Sacramento Police Department officers tried to strike a mentally ill homeless man with their cruiser.
After Clark's death, the NAACP released a statement saying that although it respected the role of police, shootings such as the latest one have angered, frustrated and frightened the community. "We are also frustrated with the justice system which fails to indict such killings. We are a community experiencing post-traumatic stress."
It remains unclear what impact the release of the video and audio tapes will have on the public's view of the shooting. Even experts in police use of force were split over the officers' actions and the value of the tapes.
Seth Stoughton, a former Tampa police officer and University of South Carolina law professor, said the officers' body cam footage offered "very little useful visual information" and served mainly as a "powerful reminder" of that type of camera's limits.
Ed Obayashi, a deputy sheriff and legal advisor to Plumas County, examines police shootings. He called Sunday's shooting "reasonable," adding that "a cellphone can easily be perceived as a gun in that environment of poor light."
Obayashi said the officers' "threat radar is way high" after moving through backyards in pursuit of a suspect reported to have committed several dangerous felonies, including breaking into a home. "This guy wasn't complying with orders and raised his hands with an object in his hands," he said.
Geoffrey Alpert, a University of South Carolina criminologist who studies police chases and shootings, disagreed.
"It doesn't look good," Alpert said, noting that "the yelling of the words 'gun' here seem to trigger the shooting."
"The officers are going to have to explain all 20 shots. They are going to have to justify repeatedly shooting," he said. "The bottom line is we have a young African American man with a cellphone being shot dead by police."
(c)2018 the Los Angeles Times