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California

‘Nothing seems to change’: In the wake of Stephon Clark killing, a demand for police reform

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Curtis Gordon, center, the uncle of Stephon Clark, speaks at a protest rally in Sacramento on Saturday calling for police reforms.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Amid another day of protests here on Saturday, there was a growing call for police reforms beyond the outcome of the investigation into the killing of an unarmed African American man by Sacramento officers earlier this month.

The shooting of 22-year-old Stephon Clark in his grandmother’s backyard has sparked a national outcry, which was only heightened when an indepent autopsy performed on behalf of his family found officers shot him in the back six times.

Clark’s death on March 18 has heightened long-standing tensions between Sacramento police the and city’s black community. In Clark’s neighborhood, some residents said they are afraid of the police.

On Saturday, activists called for a new approach from the police, both in the way they patrol minority neighborhoods and in how they use force.

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Derrell Roberts, a local activist who runs a youth mentoring program in south Sacramento, said many in his neighborhood believe that authorities “overpolice our neighborhood, thus causing confrontations that lead to the death of a young black man in this case, or in the case of Joseph Mann,” an African American homeless man whom Sacramento police fatally shot in 2016.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg issued a statement urging the community to work together through nonviolent civil action “as we pursue justice and demand reform.”

“We have an obligation to everyone involved, including the family of Clark, to wait for the full findings and results from the official autopsy and investigation,” Steinberg said. “As the mayor of our city, I assure the community and the public that we will aggressively seek answers to all of the questions the community is rightfully asking.”

Just as important, the mayor said, “we will aggressively seek appropriate change to the protocols and training that led to this unacceptable outcome.”

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In an interview last week, Steinberg said the department should consider increasing its use of less-than-lethal weapons. He said Clark’s death, though still under investigation, “was wrong” and points to the need for not only more administrative change, but also a reckoning with racism itself.

“Our kids and men don’t feel safe,” Steinberg said. “There is no danger if we do the right thing, if we push aggressively to change what must be changed.”

Betty Williams, president of the Sacramento branch of the NAACP, said Saturday that her organization wants legislation that would automatically require the state attorney general’s office to provide oversight or conduct its own investigation of such police shootings. The attorney general announced his office would participate in the Clark investigation, though the decision on whether to criminally charge the officers would still be made by the Sacramento district attorney.

In addition, Williams said, the organization wants new protocols for muting police audio recordings. Authorities quickly released officer and helicopter videos of the Clark incident. But in one video, a sergeant arrives on the scene and is heard telling officers to mute their audio after the shooting.

“If you’re looking for accountability and full transparency, keep it on the entire time,” Williams said. “Even if you’re discussing your children’s birthday party. It doesn’t matter. Leave it on.”

Former Sacramento Kings player Matt Barnes led hundreds of demonstrators Saturday in a peaceful rally at Cesar E. Chavez Plaza in downtown Sacramento.

“It’s more than color. It’s about wrong and right,” Barnes told the crowd in what was a largely motivational rally. He called for police to get out of their cars and walk the neighborhoods they patrol, to reduce their fears and the likelihood of using excessive force.

“Learn the community that you’re out here patrolling,” said Barnes, a Sacramento native who retired from the NBA this season. The Rev. Shane Harris of the National Action Network and members of the Clark family also attended.

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Holding Clark’s two sons, ages 3 and 1, aloft, Harris and Barnes announced a college scholarship fund.

It is intended “to make sure these boys go to college,” Barnes said, “but like we mentioned earlier, this is not a Sacramento problem, this is a nationwide problem, so once we get [the scholarship fund] up we are going to carry it nationwide to provide kids who have lost their fathers with stuff like this a chance to become productive men.”

Barnes, a former Laker, said he has 9-year-old twin sons and that he wanted to do his part to support his community. Saturday’s event was called Rally for Unity and Action.

“People fear what they don’t know,” said Barnes, who attended Clark’s funeral on Thursday. “We don’t know these cops, so we fear them. They don’t know us, so they fear us.”

Members of Clark’s extended family also appeared at the rally, and a few of them spoke, giving voice to their grief and continued shock.

“Nothing seems to change,” said Curtis Gordon, Clark’s uncle, speaking without a script. This “situation seems to happen quite often, that someone who looks like me isn’t going to go home. You really can’t internalize that unless you live it.”

He noted that those in the park rally included people who fought the same civil rights battles generations before, “when my mother was young, when her mother was young. You really don’t know the pain we are going through here.”

Gordon raised questions about police training, noting that officers are trained to decide when to shoot and when to stand down. The officers who shot his unarmed nephew “must become accountable. You must own your responsibility.”

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Clark’s aunt, Jamilia Land, rose to the defense of Clark’s brother, Stevante, who has been a visible if not sometimes disruptive presence at public rallies, demanding attention to his brother’s death.

“You don’t know the damage inside,” Land said. “We are living in communities that look like war zones. You don’t know what it is like to go to the home that you grew up in and hear from the ones you love that your brother was murdered in his grandmother’s backyard.”

Clark was fatally shot as police were looking for a vandal in the neighborhood.

A Sacramento County 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 the window of a home.

The man was seen running south, toward the front of the house, where he stopped and looked into another car, police said. Police body camera footage shows that officers intercepted Clark in the backyard of his grandmother’s house, and one of them yelled, “Gun!” as he turned a corner and saw Clark. The officer ducked back momentarily, then looked around the corner again and, shouting “Gun! Gun! Gun!” began firing rapidly. His partner then joined in the shooting.

The officers told other police who arrived on the scene that they thought Clark was pointing something at them. “It looked like a gun from our perspective,” one said.

The object found when they rolled over Clark’s bleeding body was a white cellphone.

Clark was pronounced dead at the scene. Police video shows that several minutes passed until officers approached Clark’s body. They then handcuffed him before appearing to attempt resuscitation.

Dr. Bennet Omalu conducted an autopsy on behalf of the family. He told reporters Friday that his examination showed that Clark was hit by eight bullets, and all but one entered while his back was turned toward the two officers who fired at him.

One bullet entered Clark’s left thigh from the front and was probably fired while he was on the ground and had already been shot multiple times, Omalu said. The county coroner’s official autopsy results are not expected for several weeks.

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


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