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The Appeal Podcast: Pushing For Police Accountability in Sacramento

With Appeal senior staff reporter Aaron Morrison

Photo of a Black Lives Matter protest. One activist holds a giant poster featuring Stephon Clark.
Black Lives Matter protesters during a march and demonstration on April 4, 2018 in Sacramento, California.Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In March 2018, police in Sacramento, California, killed Stephon Clark, an unarmed 22-year-old, in his grandparents’ backyard. A year later, District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert’s announcement that charges would not be filed against the two officers responsible for his death became the latest flashpoint for the Black Lives Matter movement. This week, we are joined by Appeal staff reporter Aaron Morrison, who will provide the latest on the protests in Sacramento and how activists are working to hold police accountable and seek justice for Stephon Clark.

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Adam Johnson: Hi, welcome to The Appeal. I’m your host Adam Johnson. This is a podcast on criminal justice reform, abolition and everything in between. Remember, you can always follow us on Facebook at The Appeal magazine’s main Facebook page and on Twitter at The Appeal’s Twitter account. And remember you can always subscribe and rate us on iTunes as well.

With the police killing of 22 year old Stephon Clark in March of 2018 and the subsequent lack of charges for the two officers responsible for his death, Sacramento, California has become the latest flash point in the Black Lives Matter movement. Devoid of accountability or oversight, Sacramento is, according to one local civil rights activist, a quote, “lawless fiefdom.” This week we are joined by Appeal writer, Aaron Morrison, to give us the latest on their protest in Sacramento and what those working to hold police accountable are doing to make sure Stephon Clark isn’t just another hashtag that eventually fades into obscurity.

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Aaron Morrison: When it is clear that an officer is negligent, when it is clear that an officer is reckless and then nothing happens to that officer, the community starts to feel as though they are being occupied, rather policed or protected.

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Adam: Aaron, thank you so much for joining us.

Aaron: Well thanks for having me.

Adam: So you wrote a piece in The Appeal called “‘I Feel The Oxygen Going Out of My Mouth,’” which was a quote by a victim, uh, who died in police custody. This came out January 31st, 2019. You’ve been following the events, uh, in Sacramento, California over the past few weeks. While the Black Lives Matter movement and police accountability movements in Sacramento didn’t begin over the last few weeks or even last year, they’ve been thrust in the national spotlight since the killing of 22 year old Stephon Clark, who was an unarmed African American who was gunned down by police in early 2018. For those unfamiliar with this case, can you give our listeners a quick breakdown of sort of what happened, how the community reacted and how authorities have handled the subsequent outrage?

Aaron Morrison: Right. So the Stephon Clark story really got its start after he was killed, gunned down in his grandparents’ backyard. The story goes, police received a call in the neighborhood reporting that someone was vandalizing vehicles. So they sent officers to the area, but they also dispatched a police helicopter. And so the police helicopter allegedly picks up what they termed or what they decided was Stephon Clark, basically the culprit of the reported vandalism. And so the officers zero in on him in his grandparents backyard. And that is when they come in contact with him. They fired 20 shots at him. I think they struck him at least seven times. And some of those shots were in the back. However, officers claimed that at some point he charged toward them and they thought the flash of his cell phone was possibly the flash of a weapon. So they opened fire. And the video of that interaction between Stephon Clark and the officers really shows a different story.

Adam: Yeah.

Aaron Morrison: And then coupled with the information that he was in his grandparents’ backyard, and as his family explained, if you’re coming in late and you don’t have a key, you go to the backyard and you knock on a window. And the family claims that’s what he was doing, he wasn’t trying to break into anyone’s home. And they argued that he would never have been the culprit of vandalism of cars or, or other property in the area. So once all of this information comes out, the community really reacts. I mean, it’s sort of writes itself, young black man in the backyard of his grandparents’ home, shot in the back several times by police officers. It had the makings of what would be another flashpoint or spark in sort of the local frustration over not only police brutality by the Sacramento PD, but a general lack of accountability activists say with the local law enforcement community. So protests ensued from there really for weeks.

Adam: Let’s talk about that dynamic because I think when we talk about police shootings, there’s often an assumption by people that the thing that’s being protested is simply the shooting itself. And you see this a lot where people try to downplay Black Lives Matter by saying, ‘oh well if you look at statistics of police shootings versus white versus black,’ but this is of course only a small percentage of what the Black Lives Matter movement generally is talking about. The police shootings are really just sort of the tip of the iceberg. They’re the thing that kind of brings it all to the surface. So let’s talk about the broader context of Sacramento, both policing and I guess to some extent the criminal legal system. What is its track record and what was the context? What was the thing that was boiling under the surface in Sacramento relative to other places and to what extent is it actually similar to a lot of these so-called flashpoints we know about from, you know, Ferguson to Baton Rouge to Baltimore?

Aaron Morrison: First we should point out that California had, and really still has, some of the most stringent strict laws around officer conduct. And what I mean by that is that the state goes out of its way to protect officers’ conduct while on duty.

Adam: Right.

Aaron Morrison: So it’s, you know, there’s something called the California Bill of Rights, which essentially makes it almost impossible to discipline police officers in California, to find out their record of discipline, but also to bring them up on criminal charges when they have used excessive force. That’s not to say that officers in California haven’t been found guilty of using excessive force, but it’s just, it’s very difficult to do that in California based on the law, based on the culture. And so in Sacramento, part of the outrage over Stephon Clark was sort of a community’s expectation that nothing was going to happen to these officers because, in Sacramento specifically, the DA Anne Marie Schubert had not charged any of the officers in, I think it’s reported, 33 police shootings. None of the officers involved in any of the 33 police shootings had been brought up on charges and very few had been fired. Usually those officers are allowed to resign and that just adds and feeds the anger because it says to the community, ‘look, you know, officers, yes, they’re gonna make mistakes but as far as holding them accountable, as far as treating them like they are anyone else and if they’ve taken a life or really harmed someone, we’re not going to hold them to the same standard that we hold citizens.’ And look, you can make arguments that because you are a police officer, you should be given some leeway because you have a duty to protect other people, which means in the course of your job you are going to have to use force. But when it is clear that an officer is negligent, when it is clear that an officer is reckless and then nothing happens to that officer, the community starts to feel as though they are being occupied rather than policed or protected.

Adam: Yeah, and there’s a bit of a subplot here that speaks to corruption. Speaking of Anne Marie Schubert, The Sacramento Bee reported that she had received $13,000 from two local law enforcement unions. This is I think a problem you see in a lot of different states where law enforcement unions will literally give large sums of money to prosecutors. This is on top of, of course, they’re kind of institutionally cushy relationship with each other. To what extent do activists and civil rights lawyers feel like she’s sort of on the take that with these police shootings that these things are sort of predetermined?

Aaron Morrison: Right. Well, I mean, look, if you are a diligent prosecutor or a district attorney and you are, you know, trying your best to maintain a relationship with the people that you serve, the people who elected you, you often want to go out of your way to make it clear that you are not in this with a bias towards police or other way around. So accepting campaign donations from police unions, really not a good look. And so what ends up happening is you go into these cases, your office as the district attorney, you are charged with investigating officers use of force and almost from the get go, no one in the community can fully trust that you’re going to do an independent investigation into these matters because you have accepted money from a union, which really their sole purpose is to advocate on the behalf of, of officers, even officers who have done things that most people will look find abhorrent.

Adam: So, um, you did great reporting on the death of Marshall Miles. I want to talk about this cause I feel like this speaks to this trend you’re talking about. Marshall Miles was a young African American man who died in custody at Sacramento County jail, you’re right, that there’s been six in custody deaths recorded by officials while suspects were under the charge of Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office in 2017, which we did a whole story about in custody deaths. Is this part of a broader trend? What were the circumstances of Miles’ death? And to what extent does this death feed into this larger frustration with Sacramento officials?

Aaron Morrison: Right. So with Marshall Miles, his story begins where he is seen at local convenience store and he’s apparently causing a disturbance and so the cashier calls the police and says, ‘you know, there’s this guy here,’ and to use her words, ‘he’s freaking out.’ Just shouting random things that customers, and not harming anyone, but just clearly behaving in a manner would that would appear to be strange to almost anyone. So the police come and they detain him, I think it was the California Highway Patrol that first detained him, especially after they got, they received more calls and there was, there were reports that he was jumping on top of cars at an intersection near the supermarket and, you know, attempting to remove windshield wipers and things. These are all really allegations cause there’s no hardcore or uh, you know, there’s no evidence that he did those things but that’s what was reported by 9-1-1 callers. So anyway, they’ve detained him and they take them to the Sacramento County Jail. But on the way there, really, before they even got him there, he was telling them, you know, ‘I can’t breathe.’ And in his state, I mean he may have been under the influence of something, but he had enough wherewithal to tell the deputies and the other officers who were getting ready to transport him to the jail ‘look, I’m not, I don’t feel well, I can’t breathe.’ And they essentially ignore them. So they get him to the jail. He continues to tell them ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.’ They take his protests and his statements as his way of just trying to get out of the situation. They are not seeing it as a medical issue. And so, you know, they continue to restrain him, they get him into a holding cell and essentially he becomes unresponsive. It’s at that point that they then, once he’s unresponsive, then they switch to, ‘oh gosh, this is a medical emergency and let’s get an ambulance here and get him to the hospital.’ So there has been no decision on whether or not the deputies involved with detaining him and placing him in the holding cell, there’s been no decision yet on whether or not they acted in accordance to their training, if there’s any sort of discipline or charges that they could be brought up on. So this is still an active case, but the latest was that the coroner came out and called Marshall’s death a homicide. So the family is waiting. They’ve waited for a really long time without answers.

Adam: Right.

Aaron Morrison: They haven’t even had a meeting with the sheriff’s department or with other officials who might give them official information about the status of their case. So to your question, Marshall Miles feeds in to a broader feeling about law enforcement in Sacramento County and in the area that folks, the leaders there, don’t feel a sense of accountability to the people that they police. So it’s okay to leave the family in the dark when they’ve lost a loved one or it’s like ‘in custody death? We’ll process it, we’ll notify the family and then onto the next.’ And so there’s a feeling that lives are disposable and that is why there’s such anger in Sacramento. So you to your point earlier, like the idea that it’s not just police shootings, it’s all of these things that together makes people feel as though they are not being served well by the people that in certain cases they elected.

Adam: Yeah. So you have the death of Marshall Miles, you have Stephon Clark, a total lack of accountability. You cite Oakland-based civil rights attorney John Burris who says quote, “the department is ‘a throwback’ to a time when sheriffs saw their jurisdictions as fiefdoms.” Went on to say, “In Sacramento County, in terms of the sheriff’s deputies, there’s a sense of lawlessness.” It would seem that, you know, you talked about Marshall Miles’ family, not even having any sense of how he died. To what extent is there just sort of a widespread lack of oversight? Who’s the one who’s supposed to hold these people accountable? Other than the district attorney? What does the mayor’s office, I assume there’s some kind of perfunctory review board, I mean, what are the mechanisms other than these protests to hold them accountable, if any at all?

Aaron Morrison: That’s the question that, you know, local activists, civil rights activists, including Black Lives Matter activists are, are asking. They’ve had a rocky, to say the least, relationship with the Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones. He’s a three term sheriff in the area. And really they, their impression of him is that he feels no accountability to the area’s civil rights community because he doesn’t like their rhetoric, especially with Black Lives Matter. He thinks that they’re just out to throw bombs and rile people up and not really be part of a solution. Uh, but on the other hand, the local community, because they’ve tried to, the civil rights community says they’ve tried to develop relationships with the sheriff and even promises that he’s made to engage them have just fallen flat. He used to meet with the local NAACP branch and now he no longer does that. There are other sort of community boards that make recommendations to local law enforcement leaders to help them fix some of the issues that continually come up. And that board, essentially the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department has a community liaison where people can come in and say, ‘hey, these are some issues that we have at the jail,’ ‘here are some issues we have with your deputies who are out patrolling.’ And that community board is supposed to meet once a month throughout the year. And in the last year, according to the website, they only met like three or four times out of the twelve times that they were supposed to meet.

Adam: Right. And that’s like the sort of bare minimum public relations sort of breadcrumb throwing anyway. Like, it’s not even, meeting with people is the ultimate sort of like shut up and go away thing and it does and they won’t even do that.

Aaron Morrison: Right. And so the other point that people are making is they just feel like, well because Sacramento is a city and it’s, you know, sort of urban and in some respects, you know, these folks who are elected, like  Sheriff Scott Jones, they really play to their suburban constituency. So really relying on the folks outside of Sacramento City to elect them. So if it’s an issue that’s, you know, sort of sourced in the inner city or with people of color in some of Sacramento’s, you know, hard hit, heavily policed areas, then you know, Sheriff Scott Jones is not really concerned with that. That’s what the activist say.

Adam: So in early March, first week of March, there was over 80 people arrested in mass demonstrations. The Mayor of Sacramento, Darrell Steinberg, is sort of playing kind of bumbling idiot, ‘I don’t know what’s going on,’ it appears to me, in the media. To what extent can you sort of lay out what happened in these protests and mass arrests? And to what extent is this kind of catching city officials off guard?

Aaron Morrison: Well, I, I think right after Stephon Clark was shot, there were local protests and the biggest demonstrations happened at the Golden 1 Center, where the Sacramento Kings play, and activists had mobilized and stopped the start or really delayed the start of a Sacramento Kings game. And it even forced the owner of the Sacramento Kings to come out, I think it was during halftime, and speak to the issue and really, you know, say he stood in solidarity with those who were trying to bring the community together and address the issues that are underlying with the Stephon Clark shooting.

Adam: Yeah. Which caught a lot of people off guard because we don’t expect billionaire owners to say that. But fun fact, Vivek Ranadivé, the Sacramento Kings owner, um, cause I was curious, I saw that speech, apparently both of his parents were major party leaders in the Communist Party in India. So I guess he maybe had a somewhat unusual upbringing for a billionaire.

Aaron Morrison: Well, it surprised a lot of people that that happened. But, you know, once that happened I went out to Sacramento to continue covering Stephon Clark, just the news, the initial burst of activities. And you know, I can, I can report that, you know, the, the protests were much smaller in the two and three weeks after the shooting then they were right after it happened. Which to some people might seem like normal, but you really had national news descending on Sacramento to cover this and so a lot of the national outlets arrived, things had sort of died down. So anyway, I think, you know, the leaders in Sacramento, elected leaders in Sacramento, assumed maybe that even with the announcement that they were going to come out with where they were not going to charge the officers who killed Stephon Clark, I think maybe they assume that the protests wouldn’t be as large as they were. So maybe they were caught off guard a bit. And so their response, bringing out sort of officers in riot gear, ended up escalating to the point where they made mass arrests, including the arrest of a a Sacramento Bee journalist.

Adam: Yeah. That seems to be the only time the media cares. Is when one of their own gets arrested unfortunately. So yeah, we see this sort of fomenting unrest. If anyone remembers, you know Eric Garner, the thing that actually galvanized protest wasn’t the initial killing, although that was, that did lead to protest, it was the acquittal in December of 2014. It’s typically the acquittal or the lack of charges that really upsets people because there’s this lack of accountability. What is on the activist docket moving forward just kind of to get some kind of accountability?

Aaron Morrison: Well, right now the plans are to hold weekly or if not daily demonstrations at the police department. That’s what I’m hearing from local Black Lives Matter activists. They’re going to have weekly, if not the full week, at least a few days out of the week, they’re going to hold space or hold a presence at the police department to let the leaders there know that they’re not, this is not something that they are going to let go. They’re not going to drop it. And, you know, from what I understand, or at least what we reported in The Appeal, uh, articles, the ACLU Northern California has sued Sheriff Scott Jones because they are alleging that he has moved to stifle the speech of local activists, specifically he banned or blocked two Black Lives Matter activists, allegedly, banned two Black Lives Matter activists from commenting on his official Facebook page.

Adam: Right.

Aaron Morrison: So I think there’s going to be some activity around sort of addressing that. I mean it’s going to move through the courts, the federal, its a federal civil rights lawsuit. But we’ll see what comes of that. And really, I think the next space to watch really is City Hall. The city council is, uh, you know, obviously there’s public comment during the city council meetings. And I don’t, I don’t think local folks in Sacramento, it doesn’t sound like it to me, like they’re going to let it go. I think this is something that they’re going to continue to bring up until the city council or the mayor or someone else really comes forward with a plan to address, you know, excessive force and training of officers and, you know, anything else that might give the impression that they are taking the community’s concerns seriously.

Adam: Yeah. Thank you so much. That was extremely helpful. I know, I know a lot of listeners probably get patches here and there about this story. You really helped put it all in one one package so we really appreciate it.

Aaron Morrison: Thank you.

Adam: Thanks to our guest Aaron Morrison. This has been The Appeal podcast. Remember you can always follow us on Facebook at The Appeal magazine’s main Facebook page and on Twitter at The Appeal’s Twitter account. And remember you can always subscribe and rate us on iTunes as well. This show is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Executive producer Sarah Leonard. I’m your host Adam Johnson. Thank you so much and we’ll see you next week.