Two Sacramento police officers were dispatched to a call of someone breaking into cars and hiding in a backyard at 9:13 p.m. March 18. A helicopter arrived prior to the officers, and deputies in the helicopter saw a man break the sliding glass window of a neighbor’s home. He then jumped a fence into another backyard.
The two officers confronted Stephon Clark in the driveway of the home. They ordered him to stop but he didn’t comply. While chasing him into the dark back yard, the officers gave commands for him to stop and show his hands. Seconds later shots are fired. Clark was declared deceased at the scene as a result of his injuries.
No gun was found at the scene, but a cell phone was recovered. The residence was Clark’s grandparents’ home. He had been staying there since his release from prison, according to the Sacramento Bee.
The shooting has fueled a maelstrom of outrage and discontent across the country. In the days since, there have been demonstrations and anger from members of the community in Sacramento and the nation at large.
In an effort to be transparent, Chief of Police Daniel Hahn authorized the release of the officer’s body camera recordings. Video footage from a sheriff’s department helicopter and recording from the dispatch center was also released.
The footage is dramatic. I’ve included the entire video in this column, not just clips. At around 7 minutes and 40 seconds into the video the officers make contact with Clark. He runs from them. They turn the corner and demand compliance. An officer shouts, “Gun, gun, gun!” followed by what is said to be 20 shots. By my stopwatch, the shooting lasts less than 5 seconds.
The internet is exploding with comments. From what I’ve seen, most are condemning the officers’ actions. The narrative is that an unarmed black man was shot and killed in his own backyard for absolutely no reason.
The officers are described as “trigger happy murderers” and a myriad of other things.
If the officers shot Clark for no reason and with malice, the term “murderers” would be accurate. The reality is, the officers’ behavior and comments reinforce the fact they saw something we didn’t. A frame-by-frame analysis of the officers’ body camera footage enhanced and at ultra-slow speed might provide some insight, but it may be a while before that’s available.
My own analysis at slow speed shows Clark standing and facing the officers by a picnic bench just before the officers jump back, with one of them saying, “gun.”
Clark was allegedly running around breaking windows. According to the Sacramento Police press release, authorities identified three vehicle windows and a home sliding glass window Clark had broken. His behavior was undeniably suspicious.
Is it a giant leap to believe he might have not complied with the officers and taken actions the officers interpreted as threatening or aggressive? I don’t think the officer would have shouted “gun” if Clark had simply been standing there holding a cell phone in his hand. Something Clark did made both officers respond the same way.
The district attorney will investigate. They will not prosecute if the determination is that the officers’ reactions were objectively reasonable given the circumstance. The California State Attorney General will investigate. The FBI will investigate. The Sacramento Police Department will conduct its own investigations regarding policies and procedures.
The officers will be prosecuted if their actions are found to be unreasonable by either the district attorney or the California State Attorney General.
A few years from now, civil attorneys will argue in court that the officers used excessive force and will present a case for police malpractice. That is, unless the city decides to forgo a trial and settle with the family. This happens often, even when the officers are not criminally culpable.
Two police officers made a nano-second decision reacting to a subject’s behavior and actions. The fear they felt was real. The consequences of those split-second decisions will impact a community and themselves for some time to come.
Joe is a retired captain. He can be reached at email@example.com.