SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Two Sacramento officers involved in the fatal shooting of Stephon Clark last year will not be charged, the district attorney announced Saturday.
The shooting of Clark, 22, in his grandmother’s backyard on March 18, 2018, sparked protests. The two officers said they believed Clark had a gun and was in a shooting stance before they fired, but only a cell phone was found.
Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert said body cameras and other evidence showed that one of the officers shouted at Clark to show his hands, that they took cover during the incident and that they saw a flash of light that one officer believed was the muzzle flash of a gun and the other thought was light reflecting off a gun, reported NBC News.
Statements made by the officers asking whether the other was hit seconds after the shooting “support the belief that they honestly, without hesitation believed he had a gun,” Schubert said. Body camera video showed the flash of light, she said. Furthermore, she said that helicopter video “conclusively shows that Mr. Clark was in fact advancing on the officers” during the encounter.
State of Mind
In determining whether an officer is justified in using deadly force, Schubert said, “we must recognize that they are often forced to make split-second decisions.”
Moreover, the officer’s state of mind is paramount when making those decisions. Not only did their words indicate a belief the suspect was armed, but they also had reason to believe they were chasing a fleeing felon, not someone who simply didn’t want to talk to the police.
Shortly after the shooting, Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn said he believed Clark was the man a neighbor four doors down reported was breaking car windows.
“Do I believe he was the one based on what we know now? I believe that, yeah, but can we factually say it yet? No. But when and if we can, we will put that out,” Hahn said at the time.
His suspicions proved true.
Police were called on a report of someone breaking car windows on 29th Street at around 9 p.m. that night, and DNA analysis and other physical evidence has shown that person was Clark, Schubert said.
As expected, Clark’s mother said the family was outraged by the decision and that her son was “executed” by police. “It’s just not right,” Se’Quette Clark said.
“My faith in the justice system is what it has been: It’s not for us. It’s not for the black community,” she said. “It’s what they’ve shown us time and time again.”
Stephon Clark’s State of Mind
A search of Clark’s phone showed he appeared despondent over a domestic violence incident with the mother of his children that occurred two days before the shooting, that he had researched suicide using drugs and alcohol and that he sent the mother of his children a text saying they should “fix our family” or else he would take 10 Xanax pills, Schubert said. He also feared going back to jail and not seeing his children again.
So just like the officer’s state of mind is relevant, so too is the mental condition of the decedent; a fact highlighted by the prosecutor, much to the displeasure of the family, according to the Sacramento Bee.
Schubert said that was relevant to the investigation because it showed that things were weighing heavily on his mind.
She said toxicology reports after Clark was killed showed the presence of alcohol, Xanax, codeine, hydrocodone, marijuana and cocaine metabolite. Clark was not filming police with his phone when he was shot, she said.
Everything Is Relevant
Clark’s mother said at a news conference later Saturday that any arguments or text messages her son was involved in were his personal business.
“Going over … my son’s character is rude, and it’s irrelevant,” she said, adding that the prosecutor was supposed to be investigating the officers and their actions.
DA Acknowledges Outrage
Schubert acknowledged the outrage in the community over the shooting.
“I don’t think there’s any question that people will be very upset and very angry,” Schubert said.
“But I want people to understand, the fact that no criminal charges will be filed in this case does not diminish in any way the tragedy, the anger, the frustration that we’ve heard since the time of his death,” she said. “We cannot ignore that.”
Schubert called the death of Clark a tragedy for his family and the community, and said she spoke with Clark’s mother Saturday morning about the investigation findings. She said the review of the shooting only focused on whether a crime was committed, and not other matters like should other police tactics have been used.
Conflicting Autopsy Reports
There were conflicting autopsy reports in the case. A private autopsy conducted by Dr. Bennet Omalu concluded that Clark was shot eight times, with nearly all of the shots striking him from behind.
But the official autopsy made public later said Clark was most likely shot as he approached police, consistent with the officers’ story, the Associated Press reported.
The pathologist retained by the Sacramento County coroner said Omalu mistook an exit wound for an entry wound, leaving the impression that police first shot Clark from the back, though Omalu defended his conclusion.
Lawsuit Filed Against Sacramento Officers and Department
Clark’s family, including his two sons, his parents and his grandparents, filed a wrongful death lawsuit in January seeking more than $20 million from the city and the officers, Terrance Mercadal and Jared Robinet, alleging that the officers used excessive force and that he was a victim of racial profiling, NBC News reported.
One of the officers who shot Clark is black and the other is white, police said.
While law enforcement authorities around the country argue that race is not a factor in these highly charged events, the fact that one officer was black should deflate the charge of racism, but it rarely does. Actually, black officers often feel pressure from each side of the controversy, a dilemma that is unfair.
Clark’s mother said after the decision that “I will never get to see my son’s face again,” and that young people make foolish decisions and mistakes.
“But 22 does not determine who you are and who you will become,” Se’Quette Clark said. “And that means that he never has that chance. He’s buried in the ground.”
The American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement that the decision not to file criminal charges “opens a new wound for the Sacramento community and serves as a potent reminder that California’s law on the use of deadly force needs immediate reform.”
That organization and a close family friend of the Clarks, Jamilia Land, were among those advocating that California lawmakers pass a bill that the ACLU says would make clear that officers should only use deadly force when there are no other options.
The bill, AB 392, in February was referred to the committee on public safety, according to the Legislature’s web site.
A legislative digest of the bill says that among the proposed changes, officers would not be able to use a defense for the use of deadly force “if the peace officer acted in a criminally negligent manner that caused the death, including if the officer’s criminally negligent actions created the necessity for the use of deadly force.”
Do Not Forget Graham v. Connor
Yet the proposed legislation seems to ignore Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989). It was a United States Supreme Court case where the Court determined that an objective reasonableness standard should apply to a civilian’s claim that law enforcement officials used excessive force in the course of making an arrest, investigatory stop, or other “seizure” of his person.
The Supreme Court held that determining the “reasonableness” of a seizure “requires a careful balancing of the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual’s Fourth Amendment interests against the countervailing governmental interests at stake.” It acknowledged, “Our Fourth Amendment jurisprudence has long recognized that the right to make an arrest or investigatory stop necessarily carries with it the right to use some degree of physical coercion or threat thereof to effect it.” However, it then noted, “Because the test of reasonableness under the Fourth Amendment is not capable of precise definition or mechanical application,” the test’s “proper application requires careful attention to the facts and circumstances of each particular case.”
The Court then explained that, “As in other Fourth Amendment contexts … the “reasonableness” inquiry in an excessive force case is an objective one: the question is whether the officers’ actions are ‘objectively reasonable’ in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them, without regard to their underlying intent or motivation.” The Court also cautioned, “The “reasonableness” of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.”
These facts are often lost on people when arguing when and how police officers use force. But this is a U.S. Supreme Court decision that remains in place.