As the capital of the nation’s most complex and populous state, Sacramento is no stranger to protest marches. But the city has never experienced anything as emotionally powerful as the almost daily marches and rallies to condemn the city police shooting death of 22-year-old Stephon Clark in the backyard of his grandmother’s home on March 18.
Responding to reports of vandalism, two officers – steered to the backyard by a helicopter with infrared cameras – confronted Clark. When one of them saw something in Clark’s hand, he shouted “gun.” The two fired 20 shots from their semi-auto pistols.
The something turned out to be a cellphone, and a later autopsy ordered by Clark’s family and performed by Bennet Omalu, a famous forensic pathologist from San Joaquin County, revealed he had been struck eight times, two in his side and six in the back.
The autopsy results and the video footage from the sheriff’s helicopter and the two officers body cameras are shockingly persuasive that the protests about Clark’s death are justified.
The two officers essentially sentenced someone suspected of relatively minor vandalism to death. They did so while apparently ignoring even the most basic procedures governing use of deadly force.
As anyone who has gone through firearms training required for a concealed weapons permit can attest, deadly force is justified only when there is an immediate threat to oneself or another and when the target and the threat can be accurately identified. Moreover, one is supposed to use the minimum force necessary to counter the threat.
In this case, it was very dark and Clark was a shadowy figure some yards away. The fact that one of the officers mistook a cellphone for a gun proves just how indistinct Clark was. Still, they unleashed that barrage of bullets in his general direction.
Only eight of the 20 shots hit Clark, meaning the other 12 went somewhere else in a crowded residential neighborhood, putting other lives in danger.
The autopsy indicated Clark was facing the house, not the officers, when he was shot and that the two shots in his side spun him around so the other six hit him in the back.
Were a civilian to have fired at and killed a shadowy figure in a backyard under similar circumstances, he or she would almost certainly be prosecuted. It’s highly unlikely the two Sacramento cops will face any criminal charges, because under long-standing law and practice, their belief that they were threatened will probably protect them.
Police work, of course, can be very dangerous. As the protests surged last week, a man named Luis Bracamontes was receiving the death penalty inside a Sacramento courtroom for the 2014 slayings of Sacramento sheriff's Deputy Danny Oliver and Placer sheriff's Detective Michael Davis Jr. Scarcely a week before Clark’s death, a Pomona police officer, Gregory Casillas, was shot to death and another policeman was severely wounded in a confrontation with Isaias De Jesus Valencia.
The vast majority of the men and women who patrol our streets are conscientious about the deadly force they are authorized to use. But we cannot just shrug our shoulders about aberrations such as Clark’s pointless and tragic death. Something went terribly wrong that night and someone must be held accountable.
Dan Walters writes on matters of statewide significance for CALmatters, a public-interest journalism organization. Go to calmatters.org/commentary.