After days of anger and social unrest over the Stephon Clark shooting, Sacramento’s hardest task still lies ahead: Reforming its police force.
Elected officials, community leaders and the police chief himself say the Sacramento Police Department must find ways to defuse tense confrontations with suspects before they turn lethal. While the investigation into the particulars of Clark’s death could take months, Mayor Darrell Steinberg and Police Chief Daniel Hahn have pledged to begin an immediate review of the department’s practices and training. That includes possible changes to the department’s policies on pursuing suspects, as well as efforts to curb the phenomenon called “implicit bias.”
The city might not have to look too far for answers.
Steinberg and Betty Williams, head of the NAACP’s Sacramento chapter, said one potential role model exists in Oakland, where a three-year-old policy emphasizes “minimal reliance on the use of physical force.” Officers are required to “de-escalate” conflicts with suspects and consider “the severity of the crime at issue” when deciding what steps to take, according to the Oakland department’s use-of-force policy guidelines.
“There’s a conscious effort to try to avoid unnecessary shootings,” said George Holland, president of Oakland’s NAACP chapter. “For the most part they have not been occurring.”
Oakland overhauled its use-of-force policies after more than a decade of investigations into police brutality and corruption. James Chanin, a Bay Area lawyer who represented a group of suspects who sued the city over corruption allegations, said police have been able to implement the new protocols without compromising their work.
“We haven’t had an increase in crime by having this de-escalation (in force),” he said. Violent crime fell 5 percent in Oakland last year, according to department data.
Oakland has also revised its “pursuit practices” to rein in chasing suspects after an internal audit revealed that officers were chasing suspects too zealously “even when the offense is not that serious.”
Police are urged to avoid chasing suspects around blind corners, “which appears to be what happened in Sacramento,” said Jack Glaser, a criminal justice expert at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy. “There’s just all kinds of potential for things to go wrong. It’s better to just secure the perimeter and call in backup.”
Oakland police officials, when asked to comment on its policies, sent a Sacramento Bee reporter a copy of the use-of-force guidelines.
Clark, 22, was shot to death March 18 as police chased him from his grandparents’ front yard to the back. The department’s confrontation with Clark took a fateful turn when two officers chased the unarmed black man, who was suspected of breaking into cars, into his grandparents’ back yard. Minutes later, he was dead of gunshot wounds.
Steinberg said he wants in particular to look at “the question of pursuit by foot.” Hahn, vowing “there will be changes,” has agreed the department must examine its policies on chasing suspects.
But Hahn, who was sworn in last summer as Sacramento’s first black police chief, also said he’s ambivalent about urging police officers to back off.
“There has been a lot of talk about whether officers pursue people as they did in this case,” he said in an interview Thursday on Capital Public Radio. “I’m perfectly willing to have that conversation, but we also need to have (discussions about) what are the consequences of not pursuing people, because that is what we have always done. When an officer sees a suspect that runs from them, we chase them. That is what we do.”
The de-escalation discussion is not new to Sacramento.
Sacramento’s City Council ordered the Police Department to overhaul its use-of-force protocols in 2016, following the fatal shooting of Joseph Mann, a mentally-ill Sacramentan armed with a knife. The new policy, finalized by the department last spring, directs officers “to use de-escalation techniques when reasonably possible.” It also says officers must “value and preserve the sanctity of human life at all times.”
But national experts on police shootings say Sacramento hasn’t gone far enough. Samuel Sinyangwe, a racial justice activist affiliated with an organization called the Police Use of Force Project, said the city should direct its officers to make deadly force “a last resort whenever possible,” as Oakland and 30 other major U.S. police forces do.
“Oakland has seen a drop in officer-involved shootings after implementing these reforms,” Sinyangwe said. “That’s what should be happening in Sacramento.”
Steinberg and others said Sacramento must face up to what’s known as “implicit bias.” That’s a phenomenon that might make officers unconsciously suspicious of people of color even if they aren’t racist.
“We cannot shy away from the hardest of hard discussions and (must) try to understand one another, and what is implicit in the way we interact with one another,” Steinberg said. “I’m starting to meet with people who spend their lives training around implicit bias. Chief (Daniel) Hahn’s department plans to start training our officers in implicit bias.”
On Friday, following an autopsy commissioned by his family that showed Clark was shot in the back six times, Steinberg reiterated that “we will aggressively seek appropriate change to the protocols and training that led to this unacceptable outcome.”
The City Council plans to devote its April 10 meeting to the policy and training review.
Numerous experts say rooting out implicit bias could yield the most promising results as Sacramento seeks to change its police department.
A 2015 report, by a policing task force appointed by former President Barack Obama, cited implicit bias as a major problem for police departments nationwide: “There is a growing body of research evidence that shows that implicit biases — the biases people are not even aware they have — is harmful.”
Brian Corr, president of the National Association of Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, said “many officers will tell you they are not racist, they have gone through racial awareness training, but we all have these implicit biases.” He also pointed out that officers can sometimes be under stress and can even be suffering from subtle trauma as they launch into action.
Although the city has refused to confirm their identities, one of the officers involved in the Clark shooting is black. Nonetheless, many of the department’s critics say racism is a problem with the Sacramento Police Department.
“It appears clearly that police officers fear African-Americans,” said the NAACP’s Williams.
Williams said Hahn told her he will have officers trained on implicit bias. She told him it can’t be a quick tutorial.
“I said to him, ‘Not a one-and-a-half-hour module, we want something with teeth.’ He agreed,” Williams said.
She also said Sacramento police officers need to become better involved in the inner-city communities they’re patrolling. “Where are they pulling their pool of police officers from? Are they coming from Granite Bay and a suburban lifestyle?
“If you are put into an urban area, you don’t know the area. If you know that is where those officers came from, you need to get them engaged in the community, understand the community,” she said. “If they know little Johnny is on the ball team, they will have some perception of who Johnny is. They could be paired up with someone who has the experience of working in urban areas and vice versa.”
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