The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sacramento simmers with tension in wake of fatal police shooting of Stephon Clark

Demonstrators march Friday to protest the police shooting of Stephon Clark, in Sacramento, Calif.
Demonstrators march Friday to protest the police shooting of Stephon Clark, in Sacramento, Calif. (Bob Strong/Reuters)

SACRAMENTO — The memory of that day, in early January, brings a smile to Salena Manni’s face.

The family had gathered at her parents’ home to celebrate her younger son’s first birthday.

“We sang him ‘Happy Birthday’ together,” Manni recalls. “Stephon bought him a miniature toy pony that he could ride on. He loves to sit on it and pretend to ride it.”

But for the past week, Manni’s young family has been shattered. Her boys’ father, Stephon Clark, 22, was fatally shot by two Sacramento police officers on March 18 — a shooting captured on body-camera and helicopter video that has prompted protests.

“They really miss their dad,” Manni said of her two sons, ages 3 and 1. “I can just see and feel that they are not whole because he is not here. They are so used to him being around, and all of a sudden he’s just gone.”

Houston deputy shoots and kills an unarmed black man on video — days after Stephon Clark’s death

A palpable frustration has settled over Sacramento, with city leaders vowing transparency and hundreds of protesters taking to the streets to demand accountability in the days since police released video of the shooting.

Police say that two officers encountered Clark after responding to a call about someone breaking windows. The footage shows Clark running to the back yard at his grandmother’s house where, seconds later, the officers fired 20 times at him.

The officers said they opened fired because they thought Clark had a gun, but police have since said that the only thing in his hand was a white iPhone.

While Clark’s family members declined to discuss the case, their attorney said they want a transparent investigation that leads to the officers being held accountable.

“The family is devastated,” said Benjamin Crump, a national civil rights lawyer who previously represented the families of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, two unarmed black men who were fatally shot, and said Friday that he is working with Clark’s family. “They are looking at the video and they just can’t believe [the police] did this. They don’t think there is any justification for it.”

Crump said the videos released this week raise troubling questions not only about the shooting, but about the officers’ behavior afterward.

“He had no gun, no weapon at all. He made no threats against the police. There was no evidence that he committed a crime. There was no warning from the police. No identification by the officers,” Crump said in an interview. “Worst of all, after they execute him in the back yard, they offer him no humanity after the execution. For almost six minutes, they just let him lie there on the ground dying.”

Although the police investigation of the shooting could take months, Crump said the family hopes to obtain Clark’s autopsy soon. Police have said that officers fired 20 bullets at him, but it remains unclear how many times he was struck.

How the Stephon Clark shooting unfolded

Clark is one of at least 244 people who have been fatally shot by police this year, according to The Washington Post’s fatal police shooting database, and one of six people shot and killed by police in Sacramento since the database began tracking such killings in January 2015. Five of the six, including Clark, were black men.

“Our city is hurting,” Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn told ABC affiliate KXTV on Thursday night amid the demonstrations, which blocked sports fans from entering a Sacramento Kings game. “You can’t go anywhere right now without feeling this, seeing it on the news, seeing the protests in person. . . . There’s no way around that.”

On Friday, the Sacramento Bee reported that former Kings players DeMarcus Cousins and Matt Barnes offered to cover the costs of Clark’s funeral.

Almost a week later, the shooting remains the talk of Meadowview, the South Sacramento neighborhood where it took place, where residents complain of break-ins, drug dealing and the heavy police presence that comes with it.

“These bars went up because people tried breaking into my home,” said Rose Guido, 70, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1975 and lives a few houses away from where Clark was killed. Like most of the homes here, Guido’s is fenced off with a security gate.

Although Guido and her husband decry what they think is an uptick in crime in their neighborhood, they say Clark — even if he had been breaking into homes or cars — should not have been killed.

“He was doing a wrong thing, but police did not have to fire their weapons,” Guido said. “They should have given him more of a warning.”

Niya Thao, 36, who lives down the street, agreed.

“The police were too aggressive,” Thao said. “They could have just shot him in the leg if they had to. It’s ridiculous.”