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It's not too late for California to charge the cops who shot and killed unarmed black man Stephon Clark

The district attorney won't charge the Sacramento Police officers who shot and killed Clark, who only had an iPhone on him, in his grandmother's backyard.

by Tess Owen
Mar 4 2019, 5:51pm

Protesters took to the streets of Sacramento, California, over the weekend after the district attorney announced that her office did not intend to pursue criminal charges against the two officers who killed an unarmed black man in his grandmother’s backyard a year ago.

District Attorney Anne-Marie Schubert said Saturday that the two officers who shot 22-year-old Stephon Clark seven times in the back on March 18, 2018, acted within the bounds of California’s law dictating when police can use deadly force. Activists are now ramping up pressure on California’s Attorney General Xavier Becerra, whose office is conducting an independent investigation into Clark’s death and could, in theory, supersede Schubert and bring charges.

Schubert’s announcement has also cast renewed scrutiny on California’s legal standard governing when police can use deadly force on civilians, and top Democrats are trying to push through legislation that would significantly restrict that standard.

“The law requires that we judge the reasonableness of an officer’s actions based upon the circumstances confronting them at that moment of time,” Schubert told reporters during a press conference announcing that the officers wouldn’t face charges. The two officers were briefly suspended after the shooting but returned to the job, without restrictions, one month later.

In the aftermath of the shooting, police changed their story several times about whether Clark was armed. First, they contended that he had a gun. In body-camera footage released days after the shooting, one of the officers is heard shouting “show me your hands,” and “gun, gun gun!” In their first statement regarding the shooting, however, the Sacramento Police Department said Clark had a “toolbar.” The department later clarified that all he had was an iPhone.

The officers were originally responding to reports that someone in the neighborhood was breaking car windows. Deputies in a helicopter from Sacramento Sheriff’s Department spotted Clark from overhead and told the officers on the ground they could see the suspect running into a yard.

Police said Clark did not comply with their orders to stop, and when they finally caught up with him in the backyard, they said he appeared to turn toward them and point a gun. The officers fired 20 shots at Clark in total, eight of which hit him — seven in the back.

Personal troubles

In Saturday’s press conference, Schubert also shed light on Clark’s personal life and divulged details about his mental health — which his parents later described as a “smear campaign” and irrelevant to the officers’ decision to shoot him.

Schubert suggested that Clark may have been suicidal, and that two days before his death, Salena Manni, the mother of his two children, called police to report physical abuse. Schubert said that, given Clark’s probation violations, he was “arrestable.” Investigators obtained text messages and draft emails from Clark’s phone that indicated that he was worried about getting arrested, according to Schubert. She added that Clark had also searched suicide hotline websites, and had sent texts to Manni discussing suicide.

"You can see that there were many things weighing heavily on his mind,” Schubert said.

Schubert, however, said that that her office did not believe that Clark was committing “suicide by cop.”

What’s next?

Since Schubert’s announcement, Black Lives Matter activists have turned their attention toward Becerra, whose office has been conducting an independent investigation of the shooting and is expected to announce the results soon.

Becerra could ultimately decide to pursue charges against the officers who killed Clark. California is one of 14 states where the state’s attorney general has unlimited power to supersede local district attorneys.

A small group of protesters successfully shut down a mall in Sacramento on Sunday, and city officials told the Bee that they are expecting more protests in the week to come. Specifically, they expect activists to disrupt scheduled Sacramento Kings games on Monday and Wednesday, as well as a City Council meeting on Tuesday.

Protesters have targeted the Sacramento Kings games in the past. Shortly after Clark’s death, hundreds of protesters blocked the entrance to the NBA arena and prevented thousands of fans from getting in to watch the game. Days later, the Kings and the Boston Celtics showed up to warmups wearing T-shirts with Clark’s name and the phrase “Accountability. We are one,” on them.

“Reasonable Fear”

On Saturday, California’s newly elected Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement that the exoneration of the two officers showed that it was “time for a change.”

“Our criminal justice system treats young black and Latino men and women differently than their white counterparts,” Newsom said. “That must change.”

Democratic lawmakers, including Senate Pro Tem Toni Atkins, intensified their calls to reform the legal standard that police are held to when they kill civilians. Under current state law, officers only need to demonstrate that they had a “reasonable fear” when they reached for their gun — a legal standard that notoriously tips the scales in favor of law enforcement.

“I remain committed more than ever before to working on California’s law enforcement use-of-force standard,” Atkins said on Saturday. “Our goal must continue to be to reduce preventable deaths and restore the public’s trust in our law enforcement agencies.”

Under Assembly Bill 392, introduced last month, police would have to demonstrate that deadly force was “necessary to prevent imminent and serious bodily injury or death.” Lawmakers introduced a similar bill in response to public outrage surrounding Clark’s death last year. The legislation stalled, in part, due to heavy opposition from the state’s powerful police unions.

Police reform advocates say that holding police to a “reasonable fear” standard is why so few officers are charged when they kill civilians.

Of the approximately 96 law enforcement officers charged with murder or manslaughter since 2005, just 34 were convicted on those charges, according to data kept by Phil Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green University and a national expert in police misconduct. To put those figures in context, police have killed more than 3,000 people since just 2016, according to the Washington Post.

Cover image: Stevante Clark, the brother of Stephon Clark who was killed by police last year, speaks during a news conference at the Genesis Church in Sacramento, Calif., Sunday, March 3, 2019. (AP Photo/Randall Benton)