Calls for changes to California’s police use-of-force policies echoed throughout the state capital Saturday after the district attorney announced that two local officers who fatally shot a black man after mistaking his cellphone for a gun will not face criminal charges.
Sacramento County Dist. Atty. Anne Marie Schubert said Officers Terrence Mercadal and Jared Robinet acted legally when they fired 20 rounds at Stephon Clark, 22, last March after chasing him into his grandmother’s backyard and confusing his iPhone for a weapon. Schubert said the officers acted reasonably because they saw a flash of light near Clark’s hand seconds before Clark advanced toward the officers.
Both officers believed Clark had a gun and had taken a shooting stance, she said, and they responded by opening fire.
Schubert also released detailed text messages and other information on Clark’s cellphone, outlining what she described as a domestic violence incident between Clark and Salena Manni, the mother of his two children, two days before the shooting. Schubert said Clark indicated that he was thinking about suicide, may have ingested pharmaceuticals with the intent of taking his own life and feared being arrested.
The district attorney said she was presenting the personal information because a jury might have found it relevant had she decided to charge the officers. “You can see there were many things weighing heavily on his mind,” she said.
Asked if she was suggesting Clark enticed officers to shoot him by pretending to have a weapon, Schubert said it was “not my job to say that,” but a consultant’s report released as part of her investigation contained a section on “suicide by cop.”
SeQuette Clark, the mother of Stephon Clark, said that what her son went through in the days before his death was not relevant.
“She wants to go on a smear campaign on his character and his actions,” she said at a news conference after Schubert’s announcement. Whatever happened before the shooting, she said, “that is not justification. That is not a permit to kill him.”
“It was homicide and they should be charged,” Clark said of the officers. The justice system, she said, “it’s not for us. It’s not for the black community. I feel, shame on the D.A.”
Stephon Clark’s family has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the city seeking up to $35 million in damages.
Raj Manni, the father of Salena Manni, said his daughter was not informed that her private texts would be released and believed Schubert was attempting to paint Clark in a negative light.
“We are just outraged, frustrated and very angry,” Manni said. “For her to do what she did is outrageous. This was supposed to be a murder investigation.”
Saturday afternoon, Salena Manni flew from Los Angeles to Sacramento with her sons, Aiden, 4 and Cairo, 2, to address the district attorney’s findings.
“My family’s world was turned upside down,” she said of Clark’s death. Manni did not address the district attorney’s accusations of domestic abuse but said what happened before the shooting was not relevant.
Many in the black community had previously said they did not expect Schubert to charge the officers but were angered by Schubert’s focus on Clark’s mental state.
“We expected the decision she gave, but what I didn’t expect was for her to be so dirty,” said Sonia Lewis, a Black Lives Matter activist.
Clark’s shooting prompted large protests last year and fueled statewide police reform legislation that allowed greater public access to law enforcement records.
On Saturday, much of the conversation centered on more legislation that would create greater accountability and further restrict when officers can use deadly force. Two bills dealing with use of force are working their way through the Legislature. Assembly Bill 392, supported by activists including Clark’s brother, Stevante Clark, would make it easier to prosecute police involved in shootings. Law enforcement unions have put forward their own bill, Senate Bill 230, which would address use of force through various policies and training.
The Rev. Shane Harris, a spokesman for Manni, said that she was proposing a state law that would require an independent review of police shootings by the attorney general, but that she also supported AB 392.
“Please don’t stop advocating for legislation and policies that could protect other families from suffering this overwhelming pain,” she said.
Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statement Saturday saying we “need to acknowledge the hard truth — our criminal justice system treats young black and Latino men and women differently than their white counterparts. That must change.”
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg said he would support AB 392.
“The standard needs to change,” said Steinberg, a former leader of the state Senate. “The question must be, ‘Was the shooting preventable?’ ”
Clark was shot March 18, 2018, after police answered a 911 call about vandalism. Schubert said DNA from blood found at the scene confirmed that Clark had broken the windows on three vehicles before a witness saw him jump a fence into a backyard.
Mercadal and Robinet responded and were directed to Clark by a deputy in a Sheriff’s Department helicopter who spotted Clark breaking a sliding glass door in a nearby backyard, then jumping a fence into his grandmother’s property. The two officers pursued him, firing 10 shots each over 4.5 seconds after Mercadal yelled that Clark had a gun, according to the district attorney’s report. Clark was hit at least seven times.
A second review of the incident by state Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra will probably be released “soon,” his spokeswoman said. The Sacramento Police Department requested the state Department of Justice assessment to allay community concerns about the impartiality of the investigation.
Ed Obayashi, a lawyer and Plumas County sheriff’s deputy who consults statewide on use of force, said that Schubert’s analysis was a reflection of current case law and that the decision against filing charges was legally sound.
“It would be a complete abuse of prosecutorial powers if she did,” he said. “There is no way they can prosecute this beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Obayashi also said the inclusion of the personal information was necessary.
“They can’t withhold that as evidence,” he said. “She’s obligated under law…. You can’t withhold evidence under any circumstances.”
Small protests took place outside Sacramento City Hall and at the main police station Saturday afternoon, but Lewis said she expected larger actions in coming days.
“Right now people are in a moment of mourning,” Lewis said. “It will probably ignite.”