Federal authorities announced Tuesday they will conduct a civil rights review of the police shooting of an unarmed black man in California’s capital last March, a killing that triggered a year of racial upheaval in Sacramento and has become the focus of legislation to curb the use of deadly force.
The announcement came hours after California’s top prosecutor declined to file charges against the two Sacramento police officers, Terrence Mercadal and Jared Robinet, who fired on Stephon Clark 20 times after mistaking his cellphone for a gun. Clark was struck at least seven times and died at the scene, later determined to be his grandmother’s backyard.
“Pain, anger, frustration, disappointment, a wound has been reopened,” said Jamilia Land, a friend of the Clark family, on their reaction to the news.
Protesters have reacted with a mix of emotions since the local district attorney Saturday announced she would not file charges. They’ve launched a series of small but strategic demonstrations across Sacramento with the intent to cause disruption and discomfort, said Tanya Faison, a founder of the local chapter of Black Lives Matter.
The protests included a sit-in that closed a mall, a barbecue at police headquarters and the suspension of a City Council hearing Tuesday night after protesters chanted, “Drop the charges. Fire the officers.” Those chants were in reference to police arrests of 80 people, including two journalists, on Monday night after a demonstration in one of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods.
The Clark family on Tuesday gathered in the home where Stephon Clark was shot, but declined to comment. After the shooting, they retained attorney Benjamin Crump, who represented the family of Trayvon Martin in Florida, and they have filed a federal civil lawsuit seeking $20 million.
Becerra said he sympathized with the Clark family, and prior to a news conference Tuesday, he met with SeQuette Clark, the mother of Stephon Clark. But after reviewing the facts of the case, he said, he determined that no charges were warranted because police believed Clark had a gun and reasonably feared for their lives.
“Mrs. Clark is trying to sort through all this. I hope we can give her peace,” Becerra said.
The attorney general’s investigation, echoing that of the report released last week by the local district attorney, found that Clark had broken the windows of three vehicles parked on the street in front of his grandmother’s home, then jumped a fence and smashed a neighbor’s sliding glass door using a cinder block. Clark did not attempt to steal anything or enter the home.
A neighbor called 911 to report the vandalism, and a Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department helicopter spotted Clark and directed Mercadal and Robinet to Clark’s location.
Mercadal and Robinet chased Clark down the side of his grandmother’s house and around a blind corner.
Becerra said the scene was fast-moving and Clark failed to obey commands. Both officers described seeing a flash of light in Clark’s hand that one officer mistook for muzzle fire, and both said Clark had taken a “shooting stance.”
“I was scared,” Mercadal said, according to the attorney general’s report. “I remember kneeling down on my left knee and returning fire because I believed we were being fired upon.”
Becerra said video evidence also showed Clark was moving toward officers when they fired, and Clark had closed to within 16 feet of them — a key factor in his determination that officers acted reasonably.
“You could see it develop and it was all very rapid,” Becerra said. “These kind of tragedies, they’re tough.”
Becerra said Tuesday his office did not review the Sacramento district attorney’s handling of the case, only the facts that were brought to light in the police investigation. He said his review came at the request of the Sacramento Police Department, which hoped that an independent assessment would allay community concerns about the impartiality of the investigation.
“We weighed a lot of the subjective evidence,” Becerra said in coming to the same conclusion as the D.A.
U.S. Atty. McGregor Scott and Sean Ragan, who heads the FBI’s Sacramento office, said the federal probe would examine “results of the state and local investigations,” and will determine whether the slaying of Clark, 22, violated his federal civil rights.
A U.S. Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment on why the Clark case warranted further examination, saying only that the review was “standard practice.”
Sacramento attorney Bill Portanova, a former federal and state prosecutor, said the review was “not normal in any respect,” but that the decision to intervene could be explained by the high profile of the case and the ongoing civil lawsuit.
“Given the highly political nature of the entire situation, it makes sense that all law enforcement agencies in the jurisdiction would be asked to weigh in,” Portanova said. “There are those cases where politics demands it.”
The promise of additional federal oversight did little to ease the distrust that Becerra’s announcement brought, even though it was expected.
Protests began Saturday when Sacramento County Dist. Atty. Anne Marie Schubert announced that Mercadal and Robinet had been found to have acted lawfully and would not face criminal prosecution. Though her decision came as little surprise, Schubert infuriated Clark’s family and activists by releasing extensive texts from Clark’s phone that detailed a fight between Clark and the mother of his two sons, Salena Manni. Those messages suggested Clark may have been involved in a domestic violence incident and may have been suicidal at the time of his death.
Clark’s brother, Stevante Clark, condemned the release of the private messages as “character assassination” and “irrelevant” to the homicide investigation.
On Monday night, more than 80 people were arrested by what appeared to be twice that many SWAT officers at a demonstration in East Sacramento, one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods and one where Ronald Reagan lived when he was governor and the film “Lady Bird” was shot. Police surrounded protesters after ordering them to disperse, trapping a group on a freeway overpass, where they were detained, said Les Simmons, a local pastor who was arrested.
Simmons said the mass detentions and attorney general’s findings “could implode in our community.”
Though the arrests and the release of the text messages angered demonstrators, many remained focused on passing state legislation. In particular, the Clark family and others are supporting Assembly Bill 392, which would curtail when police can use deadly force and make it easier to prosecute officers who do.
Stevante Clark, Black Lives Matter and other groups are all planning events on the anniversary of Clark’s death, March 18, to support the bill.
“Justice has failed us so many other places, but justice has failed because of the law,” Land said. “So we have to change the law.”