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California Department of Justice will oversee investigation of Stephon Clark killing by Sacramento police

California Department of Justice will oversee investigation of Stephon Clark killing by Sacramento police
Salena Manni, the fiancee of shooting victim Stephon Clark, wipes tears during a Sacramento news conference Monday. The California Department of Justice will oversee the investigation into Clark's killing. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

California's Department of Justice will oversee a Sacramento police investigation into the shooting death of Stephon Clark, the unarmed black man who was killed by officers during a vandalism investigation.

Speaking at a news conference backed by black fraternity and sorority members, state Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra and Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn announced the agreement Tuesday.

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"I have complete confidence in my detectives, but due to the nature of this investigation, the extremely high emotion, anger and hurt in our city, I felt it was in the best interest of our entire community, including the members of our Police Department," Hahn said. "Our city is at a critical point right now, and I believe this will help build faith and confidence."

The agreement calls for the state Justice Department to play two roles: to provide independent oversight into the investigation into the shooting of Clark by two officers who encountered him in his grandmother's backyard a week ago, and to review Sacramento's police training and policies on the use of force.

"My team and I at CDOJ will do everything in our power to ensure this investigation is fair, thorough and impartial," Becerra said, promising that the reports will be "based on the fact and the law, nothing more and nothing less."

Clark's killing has sparked days of protests in Sacramento and widespread condemnations from public figures including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and celebrities such as Amy Schumer and Common.

Tuesday's news conference drew a heavy showing of black fraternity and sorority members, who said they had come to support Sacramento's black community, as well as the city's first African American police chief, Hahn.

"We are burdened. We are burdened with Hahn. We are burdened with the Clark family. It's not just one of us, it's all of us," said Sarita Lee of Sacramento.

She and others praised Hahn and community demonstrators for their conduct in the past nine days and welcomed more transparency in the investigation. "I would like for fear to be removed," Lee said. "Police don't need to be afraid of us. We don't need to be afraid of the police."

Sacramento's mayor and police chief have urged residents to withhold judgment until the investigation is complete.

The oversight of the Justice Department will not affect Dist. Atty. Anne Marie Schubert's review of the final report, or the decision on whether to press criminal charges against the two officers, Schubert said Tuesday.

"My job is to provide a full, fair, independent review of this shooting," she said. "At the end of the day, it will be based on facts and the law. … Understand that process will take time."

Police quickly released officer videos of the shooting as well as radio transmissions. During several tense standoffs with police — including one that blocked Interstate 5 and another that prevented fans from getting into a Sacramento Kings basketball game — officers were lauded for showing restraint and preventing an escalation of tensions.

The shooting that ended Clark's life began when Sacramento officers responded around 9:15 p.m. to a call that a 6-foot-1 man wearing a black hoodie and dark pants was breaking into vehicles, authorities said. The caller said the man had broken car windows and was hiding in a backyard, according to the Sacramento Police Department.

A sheriff's department helicopter spotted a man in a backyard and directed police toward him, authorities said. Deputies told officers that the man had picked up a "toolbar" and broken a window to a home.

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The man was seen running south, toward the front of the house, where he stopped and looked into another car, police said. Officers ordered the man to stop and show his hands, but he ran. They chased him to the backyard, where, authorities say, he turned and advanced toward the officers "while holding an object which was extended in front of him."

"The officers believed the suspect was pointing a firearm at them. Fearing for their safety, the officers fired their duty weapons, striking the suspect multiple times," the Police Department said in a statement.

Clark was pronounced dead at the scene.

In police videos, an officer is heard saying, "Hey, mute," before the sound cuts off.

Sacramento's police chief said the muting issue is part of the investigation, adding that "it builds suspicion."

Clark's family has hired as its lawyer civil rights litigator Ben Crump, whose client list has included the families of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.

Leaning on Crump for support, Clark family members on Monday made the first of what he warned must be a long series of public appearances to keep a national spotlight fixed on Clark's slaying.

At Tuesday's news conference, black fraternal organizations and some religious leaders called on demonstrators to refrain from property damage and violence. Demonstrations organized by the local Black Lives Matter chapter are planned for the next three days outside of Schubert's office, where participants will demand that the officers be prosecuted.

Most of the organization's marches in Sacramento have included younger members of the black community, but have been endorsed and welcomed by older black community leaders, including those within the NAACP.

Tuesday's conference included the first vocalization of a concern that the protests might turn violent.

"If you want to honor the life of Stephon Clark, honor the wishes of the family. … Don't let this message be diluted by individuals who come in with a whole other message," said pastor Anthony Sadler. "They're taking away your voice. They're distracting from the message we want people to hear."

Though he used the word "transparency" to describe the state's new role in the Clark investigation, Becerra said there were no plans at this point for a separate state report.

He said the state team would provide what he called an "audit" role and not conduct the investigation itself. He argued that it was nevertheless important to ensure the right questions are asked, while the "facts are the facts."

NAACP state chapter president Alice Huffman said Tuesday's announcement was a step in the right direction. The NAACP has unsuccessfully sponsored legislation in Sacramento that would require fully independent investigations of police shootings.

"To step in is really great," she said. "The way the state law is set up now, we would have to claim foul [on the part of local police] to get Xavier's involvement."

Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, a Democrat who represents Sacramento, has tried repeatedly to pass legislation that would provide for independent investigations of officer-involved shootings. His 2015 bill would have made those inquiries mandatory.

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A 2017 version allowed them to be voluntary, conducted by the state Department of Justice. The bill did not win support from Becerra until McCarty removed the independent investigations altogether, and called for only a study by Becerra's office.

McCarty on Tuesday praised Becerra's agreement to lend oversight to the Sacramento investigation into Clark's death, but continued his call for an independent investigation.

Becerra in 2017 told The Times he believed local police and prosecutors were better equipped to investigate shootings. "I think any time you can keep things as local as possible it's always the best way to do it," he said then.

Tuesday, he said it was a matter of money and manpower.

"Please recognize that with 58 counties I cannot do 58 separate types of investigations. I don't have the resources to go everywhere. But what I do have … is the capability and the talent to try to help."

UPDATES:

1:10 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Huffman and McCarty.

11:40 a.m.: This article was updated with comments from Dist. Atty. Anne Marie Schubert and pastor Anthony Sadler.

This article was originally published at 10:10 a.m.

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