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Sacramento officers acted appropriately in fatal shooting of man who posed ‘direct threat,’ lawyer says

Sacramento PD dash cam video
Sacramento police dash-cam video.
(Sacramento Police Department)

A lawyer for the two Sacramento police officers who killed a mentally ill man after apparently trying to run him down says the incident has been distorted by media hype and efforts to obtain a multimillion-dollar settlement.

“What is lost in the rhetoric ... is the true danger that was presented” by Joseph Mann, according to a written statement from attorney Judith Odbert. She is representing the two Sacramento officers who killed the 50-year-old Mann on July 11.

Reached by phone Tuesday, she extended her criticism to the news conferences and public statements, including a call for murder charges, levied by the Oakland lawyer representing Mann’s family in a federal civil liberties lawsuit against the city.

Odbert’s lengthy statement breaks nearly three months of silence for the defense of Officers Randy Lozoya and John Tennis. The two patrolmen were among nearly a dozen officers to respond to reports of a man with a gun and knife wandering through a north Sacramento neighborhood and behaving strangely.

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While other officers followed Mann or sought to block his path with their vehicles, video recorded by a dashboard camera shows Lozoya and Tennis discussed trying to hit him with their vehicle. After failing to do that, they ran up to him and fired 18 shots, hitting Mann 14 times from a distance of some two dozen feet.

The shooting became a national controversy last week when audio recordings of Lozoya and Tennis’ comments became widely distributed. Law enforcement experts interviewed by The Times say multiple videos of the incident raise doubt as to whether Mann presented a true threat.

Odbert countered in her three-page statement, however, that “Mr. Mann was not an unarmed black male minding his own business and shot for racial reasons. Lethal force was deployed due to the direct threat that he posed to the citizens of this community and the officers.

“At what point do we want to put the lives of armed persons acting threateningly over that of innocent citizens going about their daily business?”

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Although at least two callers told police dispatchers that they thought Mann had a gun, responding officers described only seeing a small knife, with a 4-inch blade.

The decision of whether Tennis and Lozoya were within the law when they shot Mann centers on whether they felt he put themselves or the public in imminent danger, law enforcement experts have said.

Plumas County Sheriff’s Deputy Ed Obayashi, a use of force expert, said the officers’ perspective is important, but it must be gauged against the actions of their colleagues.

“Why did they charge in and attempt to run over a man when other officers who been on the scene far longer had not?” Obayashi said. Odbert’s statement establishes that the driver intended to use the vehicle as a weapon, but the officer must be able to show a specific threat to life.

“The courts have held that you cannot base your action on a general assumption,” he said. 

It is important that the officers were aware of the gun report and saw the knife in viewing their perceived threat to life, Obayashi said 

The city Police Department’s internal investigation is complete but has not been released. The Sacramento County district attorney’s office has yet to issue an opinion on the shooting, and an independent review by the city’s public safety accountability director is expected this month.

Oakland attorney John Burris, who represents Mann’s family and whose firm specializes in representing families of those injured or killed by law enforcement, is not waiting for those results to press for even greater scrutiny. On Monday, he sent a letter to the U.S. Justice Department seeking a fuller review and raising questions about Tennis’ involvement in a 1997 death of a police subject.

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“It is not my practice to wait, because I don’t have confidence” in the Sacramento investigations, Burris said. “Police have a tendency to support each other, and I have to take the steps I need to take.”

Odbert defended the officers’ recorded discussion of hitting Mann with their patrol car, saying it was moving at a slow speed and “the use of a vehicle is allowed to stop a threat of death or great bodily injury.”

Odbert’s statement is critical of the court of public opinion, noting that most civilians lack the training or expertise to judge Lozoya and Tennis’ actions. She said Mann, who the city said tested positive for methamphetamine, had walked into a populous business district where the potential for harm was great, and yelled, “Come on bitch!” as the two officers ran at him.

She called the behavior a “clear demonstration of desire to engage in a violent assault.”

In addition, Odbert said Tennis and Lozoya, both of whom have mixed race children, have unfairly been subjected to “character assassination.”

“They are not racist,” she wrote.

paige.stjohn@latimes.com | Twitter: @paigestjohn

richard.winton@latimes.com | Twitter: @LAcrimes

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St. John reported from Sacramento, Winton from Los Angeles.

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