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Sacramento grappling with video that appears to show police trying to run over mentally ill man they later fatally shot

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

A graphic police video that appears to show two Sacramento police officers trying to run over a mentally ill homeless man with their cruiser has sparked tough questions from both city leaders and some law enforcement use-of-force experts who say it might be hard to justify the behavior.

Patrol car recordings related to the July 11 fatal shooting of Joseph Mann were released by police Sept. 20. But it wasn’t until last week that enhanced audio from one dash camera inside a police cruiser revealed one officer using an expletive and saying,  “I’m going to hit him.” The other officer can be heard saying, “Go for it” as the patrol car turns sharply toward Mann.

Mann died less than a minute later after officers chased him a short distance on foot and opened fire, striking him 14 times. Police were pursuing Mann after receiving reports of a man wielding a knife in the neighborhood. 

Two experts in police tactics said the video and audio recording raised several troubling questions about the officers’ actions. They note that for most of the pursuit, officers were safe inside their cars and no members of the public appeared near Mann.

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Ed Obayashi, a Plumas County sheriff’s deputy and legal advisor on police use of force, called what he saw on the videos “Lone Ranger-ish.” He was most concerned by the officer stating his intention to harm Mann half a block away from the suspect, even before seeing what Mann was doing.

“I have a real issue with officers declaring their intent in the heat of the moment,” he said.

“The issue [is] ... the use of lethal force with the radio car as a weapon. That is tough to defend,” said Charles “Sid” Heal, a retired Los Angeles County sheriff’s commander.

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“It is impossible to be definitive because the situational awareness is developed beyond what the video depicts, but without substantial provocation and urgency, deciding to employ lethal force before confronting the suspect is going to be difficult to defend,” Heal said.

Former Los Angeles Police Department Capt. Greg Meyer, a prominent use-of-force expert, cautioned that the officers’ comments are open to interpretation. The remark “I’m going to hit him” does not necessarily mean “run him over,” Meyer said Sunday.

The revelations contained in the recordings have shaken Sacramento officials, who are unsure of exactly what problem they are dealing with, and how deep it runs.

“I need to understand, from the police chief himself, is this customary? And then what happens? I’m looking for answers and a path forward,” said Alan Warren, a City Council member who is pressing Sacramento police officials to disclose more about their investigation into the shooting.

A year ago, Sacramento was celebrating its distinction as the most integrated major city in the United States. The Mann shooting and an earlier case have prompted Sacramento to examine the issue of how law enforcement treats blacks, part of a national debate.

The April 2016 police shooting of a homeless man, Dazion Flenaugh, had drawn little attention. Similarly, the shooting of Mann was treated as a local crime story. Television coverage focused on the officer who injured himself while attempting to catch the 50-year-old suspect, who police said had charged them.

 In August, cellphone and security camera videos obtained by private investigators revealed it was Mann who had been charged, by two police officers shooting at him. Last week, the Sacramento Bee reported the officers’ dialogue, pulled from enhanced audio from their dash cam. 

Mann had attended college and worked for 17 years at a grocery store and then as an administrative clerk for the state corrections department. He slid into mental illness after his mother’s death three years ago.

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He had no home of his own but slept in the homes of his family members in Sacramento. “He was not the most attractive victim, unemployed, African American,” said Mark T. Harris, a Sacramento lawyer who has taken on the community action side of the case alongside Oakland lawyer John Burris, who has filed a federal lawsuit against Sacramento on behalf of Mann’s elderly father and three siblings.

“The dash-cam video and audio is the most disturbing view into the mind-set of local law enforcement of anything I’ve personally been involved with in the 35 years I’ve been practicing law,” Harris said Sunday.

Both in community forums and in the lawsuit, the lawyers challenge why police did not follow now-standard police procedures to de-escalate confrontations with mentally ill subjects, but instead did “the absolute opposite.”

After residents called to report a strange man in their neighborhood wielding a knife and/or gun, a patrol car tailed Mann for several minutes at a slow pace as an officer repeatedly ordered the oddly gesturing man to “drop the knife.” A second car arrived and attempted to intercept Mann. But he jogged around it, and at one point threw an object — identified by Harris as a plastic water bottle — at a patrol car.

It was inside a third cruiser, just arriving on the scene, that an officer declared, “I’m going to hit him,” as Mann began to cross in front. The other officer urged, “OK. Go for it. Go for it.”

But it is unclear if the reference was to hitting Mann with the car, or in a body tackle. Video from another police car shows the officer had his door open on the side closest to Mann as the subject scrambled away.

The same officer shouted, “Watch it! Watch it! Watch it!” seconds later when the pursuit car again almost clipped Mann.  They pulled to the curb and chased Mann on foot, trapping him against a high fence. A voice off camera shouts “Come on — !” just before gunfire erupts. Mann instantly drops to the ground. Sixteen shots were fired. Fourteen hit Mann.

Officers later found a knife with a 4-inch blade, according to police.

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There is no public video of the death of Flenaugh, shot by Sacramento police in April. The 40-year-old was wandering a neighborhood, peering into windows and doors, when he was picked up by officers and detained in their car. After Flenaugh panicked, he was released and ran, taking a kitchen knife from a home. In a pursuit by police, he was shot six times.

Six months later, the Police Department has not released its report of the killing or Flenaugh’s autopsy.

“It is not small-town Mayberry, but [Sacramento] has been the place where that kind of stuff doesn’t happen,” Harris said. 

Sacramento neighborhoods are so diverse that Priceconomics, an online data journal, published a report identifying the city of 479,000 as the nation’s most integrated.

However, Harris and others said there long have been problems with how the Sacramento Police Department treats minorities, especially in largely minority neighborhoods such as Del Paso Heights, where Mann was killed.

“They have to regain our trust. They have to do it as if they want to, in their hearts, and not come into our community as though they’re at war with us,” Tanya Faison, with the Sacramento chapter of Black Lives Matter, told members of a police advisory commission in August.

Amid the call for independent scrutiny, Sacramento’s Office of Public Safety Accountability will release its own review of the shooting in two weeks, director Francine Tournour said Sunday.

Both of the officers involved in Mann’s shooting had been with the department more than two decades.

Burris has challenged whether one, John Tennis, was fit to carry a firearm. County court files show Tennis’ wife had received a restraining order against him after she claimed he abused her and their children.

The other officer, Randy Lozoya, received a commendation in 2010 for saving the life of a man who had shot himself in an attempted suicide. Lozoya held up the bleeding man so that he could breathe until ambulances arrived.  

paige.stjohn@latimes.com

richard.winton@latimes.com

tony.barboza@latimes.com

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