Why Sacramento is still protesting Stephon Clark’s death, one year later

Protests have not subsided in Sacramento, a week after city and state law enforcement concluded that the officers who shot and killed Stephon Clark did not commit a crime.

Last week, hundreds of high school and college students from around Sacramento marched to the California state capitol building to protest the decision. On Monday, Sacramento police arrested 84 activists and journalists, declaring the protest unlawful after alleged vandalism (the Sacramento District Attorney declined to press charges). And yesterday, a vigil for Clark turned into a protest that ended at the District Attorney’s office.

“This could be you. This could be your family,” said Clark’s brother, Stevante Clark, as he lead a moment of silence in his grandmother’s backyard, where his brother was killed. “We’re going to say his name and we’re going to say it loud as hell.”

Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old black man, was shot and killed by two Sacramento police officers last year, after police say they mistook a cellphone he was holding for a gun.

The investigation into Clark’s death was drawn out for nearly a year, but last week, Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert said the evidence justified the officers’ use of deadly force. Extremely graphic body camera footage shows that one officer issued verbal warnings before they opened fire: “Show me your hands! Gun! Show me your hands! Gun, gun, gun!”

But protesters, like Tanya Faison, who leads Black Lives Matter Sacramento, argue that the investigation of the officers wasn’t nearly as thorough as the investigation into Clark. (The district attorney’s office reviewed interviews, Clark’s text messages, and toxicology report, and at one point implied that Clark may have been looking to commit suicide.)

“[Schubert] violated his family and the mother of his children’s privacy,” Faison told NPR. “So that was really problematic, really disrespectful.”

In the wake of the city’s decision, the situation in Sacramento has come to closely mirror what happened a year ago after Clark was killed: BLM Sacramento is ramping up protests in opposition to the district attorney and state leaders are again calling for legislation to change California’s “use of force” policy, essentially requiring police to exhaust all other options before using lethal force. Those calls are echoed by Clark’s family.

“Stop trying to justify [the shooting] by looking at a person’s character,” his mother SeQuette Clark told the Sacramento Bee. “Everybody should just stop and think about what they did at 22.”

California’s police officers are almost never prosecuted when they kill someone

According to legislative analysis from AB-931, a California State Assembly bill that was intended to change the standard for when police can use deadly force, California police kill more people than in any other state (162 people in 2017). While California did not have the highest rate of police shootings per capita in 2018, according to the Washington Post’s Fatal Force Database, there is a striking comparison between it and the nation’s other populous states: There was less than one police shooting per million people in New York, versus almost three shootings per million people in California.

CalMatter’s Opinion Columnist, Dan Walters, cited that analysis when he also noted that California has one of the oldest unamended police use of force laws in the country. That law, he notes, allows officers to use fatal force when “arresting persons charged with felony, and who are fleeing from justice or resisting such arrest.”

Similar laws in other states have been overturned by the courts, but California’s remains intact, described in a legislative report as “the single oldest unamended law enforcement use of force statute in the country.”

In practice, it is the basic reason why California’s police officers are almost never prosecuted when they kill someone, even when the circumstances indicate that deadly force was not needed.

“Was a crime committed? There’s no question that a human being died,” Schubert said at a press conference where she announced her conclusions. “But when we look at the facts in the law and we follow our ethical responsibilities, the answer to that question is no.”

Research by the Stanford Law School’s Criminal Justice Center suggests that interviews fully independent from the employing agency, which in this case would be the Sacramento Police Department, are a best practice when looking into police shootings. However, Schubert did not interview police directly, instead relying on interviews from the Sacramento Police Department. Attorney General Xavier Becerra could not say if Department of Justice investigators under his watch interviewed Sacramento Police or relied on the same provided interviews. Schubert’s office did not respond to requests for comment on the investigation by press time.

A legislative path forward?

The US Department of Justice will now launch its own civil rights investigation into Clark’s death, which will rely on the materials already collected by California law enforcement, but may warrant additional investigation.

AB-931, the bill that aimed to change California’s use of force standard didn’t make it to a floor vote last year. But Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), the state lawmaker who proposed it then, has already revived the bill for this year’s legislative session.

After Schubert presented her findings, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said there must be changes to the criminal justice system, but has not yet expressed support for the bill.

“We need to acknowledge the hard truth: Our criminal justice system treats young black and Latino men and women differently than their white counterparts,” he said in a written statement. “That must change.”

Newsom told the Sacramento Bee he would carefully review AB-931 if it got to his desk.

On Tuesday, protestors plan to occupy the Sacramento Police Department. The Facebook post, where Black Lives Matter organizers are coalescing supporters, still retains the same sense of urgency as last year:

TAKE THEM OFF OF OUR STREETS NOW!!

THERE WILL BE NO PEACE TILL THERE IS JUSTICE!!