How Does a California Department of Justice Review of the Sacramento Police Department Impact the Stephon Clark Case?

Black Lives Matter protesters hold a sign during a demonstration in front of the offices of Sacramento district attorney Anne Marie Schubert on April 4, 2018 in Sacramento, California.
Photo: Justin Sullivan (Getty Images)

Last week, the California Department of Justice released a report and recommendations for improvements within the Sacramento Police Department specifically pertaining to its use-of-force policy.

The 97-page “Sacramento Police Department Report & Recommendations 2019” (pdf) was released just days after the state DOJ turned over the findings from its independent investigation of the shooting and killing of Stephon Clark by two Sacramento police officers in March 2018. Upon receiving the DOJ’s investigation report on Tuesday, District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert’s office announced there would be a delay in her decision as to whether the two officers will be criminally charged in Clark’s death.

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Schubert’s office clarified that its job is to determine “whether the conduct of the two Sacramento police officers constitutes a prosecutable crime under established California law.”

Clark, 22, was killed in his grandmother’s backyard when two police officers—Terrence Mercadal and Jared Robinet—answered a call about a man possibly breaking into cars and were led to his location by a sheriff’s helicopter. Without identifying themselves as police officers, the two yelled for him to put his hands up, one yelled that he had a gun and each officer fired 10 shots—eight of which struck Clark, mostly in the back, and killed him.

According to the state DOJ, the report is “entirely separate from DOJ’s independent oversight into the shooting death of Stephon Alonzo Clark,” and its purpose is to provide the Sacramento PD with “recommendations grounded in evidence and promising practices from around the country to help guide the reform efforts it has independently committed to pursue.”

Sacramento Chief of Police Daniel Hahn said in a statement released by the state’s attorney general that he had invited California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to examine his department because SPD “isn’t interested in being good enough, or in narrowly complying with the laws and policies governing our work.”

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We continue to seek ways to be a leader in law enforcement and to set an example of transparency, community involvement, and constant improvement,” Hahn said.

“We stand together today to take an important step forward to strengthen the trust that must exist between our communities and law enforcement officers as they work to protect all Californians,” Becerra said. “This report will provide the Sacramento Police Department with a range of substantive recommendations to do just that. I thank Chief Daniel Hahn for opening the doors to his department for the Department of Justice to conduct this important, independent review.”

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Although they say the review is independent of any investigation into the Clark shooting, it is worth noting how what is in the review could impact the decisions made around that shooting.

The review focused on six key areas:

  • use of force policies
  • use of force reporting and investigation
  • use of force training
  • officer-involved shooting incident review
  • personnel complaint procedures
  • community engagement and transparency

Between April 2013 and March 2018, SPD had 18 officer-involved shootings—not including the shooting of Clark. The state DOJ reviewed all of those shootings.

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The review found that SPD has “significant deficiencies” in some of its operational systems, including outdated use of force policies, a “lack of standardization and rigor in use of force internal investigations and training,” and a lack of systemic accountability—especially as it pertains to the personnel complaint process.

Understand that these are not small deficiencies. A lack of guidance in any of those areas is a failure to have any measurable control over what your officers are doing.

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In the wake of the Clark shooting, SPD has made some significant changes, including a change to its foot-chase policy, as well as an update to its body camera policy that is meant to prevent “accidental” shutoffs in the middle of police encounters with the public.

The state DOJ is tasking SPD with more clearly defining and describing when force is—and is not—authorized to be used. It recommends the department “create standards that more clearly define and build upon minimum legal requirements; and more clearly and consistently articulate a commitment to protecting the sanctity of life and de-escalation.”

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This is key, but what this is seemingly telling us is that de-escalation and protecting the sanctity of life is not something that is currently pushed within the department.

That is affirmed in another recommendation by the state DOJ that says the SPD training academy needs to place a “greater emphasis on teaching officers to have a ‘guardian’ mindset.” This we can gather is as opposed to an authoritarian mindset.

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It’s obvious that the state attorney general and the brass at the Sacramento Police Department realize there is a serious problem. Will the district attorney see things the same way?

The state use of force law has not been updated in nearly 150 years. Now, the state Department of Justice has exposed that the use of force policy for the Sacramento Police Department is outdated as well.

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Schubert has a documented history of not charging officers in shootings. Will the outdated policy be her crutch this time?

The timing of all this could not be more perfect. In as much as SPD seems to be doing all it can to show that it is making changes, it doesn’t escape notice that as far as we know, those officers are still on duty.

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Was there disciplinary action? Will they be held accountable? Is this report—which specifically analyzes the use of force policies of the Sacramento Police Department—a hint at what we have to look forward to?

Make no mistake; reviewing departments and their policies is essential, especially in a time when police departments have officers that act outside of the law.

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But should this review be the thing that gives Mercadal and Robinet a pass for their horrific and egregious offense, that would not bode well for the city of Sacramento or the state of California.

Law enforcement in general will once again be recognized as somehow, some way, always escaping the law.

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About the author

Monique Judge

News Editor for The Root. I said what I said. Period.