Protesters gathered by the hundreds at the Sacramento City Council meeting Tuesday night, and, like slain citizen Stephon Clark, they held up their cellphones.
“Does this look like a gun?” activist Berry Accius asked Mayor Darrell Steinberg and the other members of the council as those in the crowd extended their arms, phones in hand.
They were protesting the March 18 killing of Clark, 22, an unarmed black man shot at 20 times by two police officers. Police said the officers believed Clark had a gun, but only a white iPhone was found near his body.
The demonstrators on Tuesday were led by Stevonte Clark, who burst into the meeting about 30 minutes after it began, walked to the council’s dais and sat on it, chanting his brother’s name. His eyes met Steinberg’s.
“Stephon Clark! Stephon Clark!” he yelled, clad in a black shirt bearing his brother’s face.
And in front of Steinberg, he addressed the crowd: “The mayor and the city of Sacramento has failed all of you.” The demonstration prompted a recess and forced Steinberg to end the meeting early, citing safety concerns.
Steinberg said Clark’s disruption was inappropriate, but the moment revealed undercurrents of frustration and tension in a community marked by skepticism of police accountability.
“There is deep pain and anguish,” Steinberg told The Washington Post in a phone interview on Wednesday. “It’s our job to bear some of that pain, and to help translate the anguish and grieving and the historic pain [of black communities] into tangible and real change.”
Released body-camera footage of the incident, including delays in providing first aid and the officers’ failure to announce themselves as police, has prompted outrage in Sacramento, calls for accountability and numerous protests amid recent police killings of unarmed black men in the country.
Stevonte Clark could not be reached for comment. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D) and Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn announced earlier Tuesday that the state Department of Justice would provide independent oversight of the police investigation into the shooting.
“We take our responsibility in full recognition of the importance of getting it right,” Becerra said. “Because it’s about respect and trust. It’s about identifying ways to achieve public safety and safer outcomes in the future.”
Steinberg was also in attendance for the announcement. He had briefly spoken about the conduct of the officers, citing the ongoing investigation. But, he said, “regardless of the conclusions there, the outcome was just plain wrong. A 22-year-old man should not have died that way.”
Policy evaluations are underway, he said, including an April 10 department-led review of relevant procedures, like how foot pursuits should be conducted and regulations for applying first aid to suspects.
Police say that Clark was breaking into vehicles and that the officers pursued him as he headed to his grandmother’s house, where he had been staying. One officer shouted ‘Gun!’ in the belief that Clark was armed. The two officers took cover, and seconds later, fired 10 rounds each, striking Clark an unknown number of times. More than five minutes passed before officers provided medical attention. Clark died at the scene.
“It raises serious questions, obviously,” Steinberg said about the officers’ apparent failure to identify themselves as police.
The delay in providing medical attention, another focus of the outcry, is also a concern. “I am troubled by that,” he said, but he added that the probe may reveal why that had occurred.
Sacramento police declined to elaborate on their policy on providing live-saving aid to citizens they injure. “That is part of our ongoing investigation of this entire incident,” spokesman Vance Chandler said Wednesday. A single sentence of department guidance reads: “Officers shall provide first aid to injured parties if it can be done safely.”
Chandler also declined to describe department policy detailing how and when officers can disable their body-camera video and audio feed. In the closing moments of the body-camera footage released by the department, another police official asks the two officers involved in the shooting to mute their body cameras. The department has not released their names amid threats to their safety.
Family members and activists accuse police in general of treating black men with more violence. Steinberg said he believes unconscious racial bias is linked to police shootings generally, but he stopped short of describing any link to the Clark killing.
“I don’t believe our cops are racist. But that’s a different question from whether [implicit] racism pervades every aspect of community life, especially in law enforcement and communities of color.”
An analysis by The Post found that 987 people were killed by police last year — 68 of them unarmed. Clark is at least the sixth person fatally shot by the Sacramento Police Department since the beginning of 2015. Five of them were black men; the other was a white man. At least 230 people have been killed by police this year, according to The Post’s database on fatal force.
The White House on Wednesday called Clark’s death “a terrible incident” but declined to weigh in further on the shooting or the decision by Louisiana’s attorney general, announced Tuesday, not to seek charges against the officers who fatally shot Alton Sterling in 2016.
In Sacramento, the protests continue, and citizens are closely watching the outcome of the investigation. Steinberg said he is “extremely conscious” of nationwide accountability concerns involving police officers escaping punishment after they were found to have violated the public’s trust.
A Post analysis published last year found that since 2006, the nation’s largest police departments have fired at least 1,881 officers for misconduct. Departments reinstated 450 officers after appeals required by union contracts.
California laws minimize what law enforcement agencies publicly release after incidents such as officer-involved shootings, including the disciplinary measures taken and the investigators’ conclusions. “That’s not right. The public has the right to know,” Steinberg said.
All eyes are on Sacramento to serve as an example, he said.
“We need to ask and answer that seminal question: ‘Is there not a better way?’ And the answer has to be yes.”
Wesley Lowery contributed to this report.