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'I’m going to hit him.' Sacramento police trying to run over mentally ill homeless man with their car sparks outrage, questions

SACRAMENTO — Twice during their slow-speed chase of a mentally ill homeless man suspected of having a gun, city police officers in different cars discussed using their vehicles to hit the pedestrian.

This is now a key element of investigations into the case of Joseph Mann, who was fatally shot by officers after they spoke of hitting him with their police cruisers and then apparently twice tried to carry out the tactic. Their comments were captured by police dash cameras.

Although police have policies and training for a myriad of scenarios, officials in Sacramento and elsewhere in California say the idea of using a police cruiser to hit a suspect has gotten relatively little attention.

An independent investigator reviewing Mann's case says such a maneuver would have been beyond the playbook of the Sacramento Police Department.

“That is not their policy. There isn’t a policy regarding using the vehicle as a weapon,” said Francine Tournour, the city’s director of public safety accountability.

The Sacramento case has attracted national attention because Mann did not appear to pose an imminent threat when police apparently tried to run him over.

“I’m going to hit him,” an officer said in the car containing Officers John Tennis and Randy Lozoya. “OK, go for it, go for it,” his partner said. Mann is shown dodging the fender of the car headed in his direction.

Seconds later, in another patrol car, officers had a different exchange. “You’re gonna hit him, you’re gonna hit him,” one unidentified officer warned. “I’m not going to do it ... I’m not going to force it,” his partner replied, continuing to follow Mann by car even as Tennis and Lozoya got out of their vehicle. They ran up to Mann with guns drawn and began to fire.

Law enforcement officials elsewhere said they consider the use of police cars to intentionally hit suspects a legitimate tactic but only in potentially deadly confrontations involving the lives of the officers or members of the public.

“We had a man on a bicycle point a gun at officers in a car and the driver hit him with the vehicle,” said Los Angeles Police Deputy Chief Bill Murphy. “It was deemed a lethal use of force,” Murphy said, though the bicyclist survived.

Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Cmdr. Mike Parker, who oversees training, said, “We do talk about a vehicle as a weapon of necessity…striking a person with a car instead of shooting them because of the circumstances.”

Mann was killed July 11 when two officers cornered him against a fence and fired 18 shots, hitting him 14 times. They were in one of four or five patrol cars that responded to a report of a strange man walking through a residential area with a knife and a gun.

No gun was found, but officers spotted Mann carrying a small knife and a water bottle. His family members said the 50-year-old unemployed man was mentally ill, and they have filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit against Sacramento. Their attorney on Monday also sent a letter to the U.S. Justice Department seeking a federal review of the incident.

Tournour said her report will probably contain recommendations for enhanced officer training on how to interact with the homeless community and how to handle those with weapons such as knives who do not comply with police orders.

“Sacramento has one of the biggest homeless populations — for a city of this size it is extremely large,” she said.

“The sad part is we’ve gotten into a culture of criminalizing mental illness ... almost like the police are forced into a position to handle them in that moment.”

She also intends to go beyond department policy to look at the actual tactics officers used in their interactions with and ultimate shooting of Mann. “I know there will be something in there regarding options, regarding de-escalation,” she said.

Tournour’s report, expected later this month, is the closest thing to an independent review that Sacramento has.

A pending review of the shooting by the Sacramento County district attorney’s office is limited to whether there was legal justification to kill Mann. By policy, investigations of such police shooting are done in partnership with the Police Department.

Tournour  has been privy to the unfolding police investigation of the Mann shooting from the start, sitting in on interviews of officers and witnesses and receiving internal briefings and final reports — more than 400 pages.

Her reviews typically focus on department policy and officer training and wind up in an annual report. She intends to release a special public report on the Mann incident.

“The subject has been so sensitive,” she said. “I felt like it  would best not wait.”

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