Police

No Charges Against Police Who Killed Stephon Clark, but Anger Has Led to Important Reforms

After police killed an unarmed man in a backyard in Sacramento, outrage led to greater transparency about officer conduct.

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Stephon Clark family
Renee C. Byer/TNS/Newscom

There will be no charges against the Sacramento police officers who shot and killed Stephon Clark last year after mistaking his cellphone for a gun. But the outrage that followed Clark's death has led to some real reforms in California, and more may be coming.

Two officers shot Clark seven times following a foot chase. They were responding to some 911 calls about an individual breaking car windows. They cornered Clark behind his grandmother's house. The body camera videos from the two cops showed them attempting to confront Clark, then screaming "Gun!" and opening fire.

It turned out ultimately that Clark was not holding a gun but a cellphone. Protests and an investigation followed.

On Saturday afternoon, a year after Clark's death, Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert announced that she has concluded that the two police officers genuinely feared that Clark had a gun and that they "acted lawfully" when they shot him.

In a lengthy press conference, she walked through all the details, arguing that the officers had honestly mistaken a flash of light from Clark's phone for muzzle fire. Furthermore, an investigation of Clark's phone and the events of that weekend showed that he was deeply troubled following an apparently violent confrontation with the mother of his children. Clark was on probation for multiple crimes (two charges of domestic violence; one for robbery) and was likely concerned about the pending police response to the incident. A search of his phone showed that he had been both texting the woman over and over again, and also had been searching for online tips for killing himself. And he wasn't even stealing anything from the cars he was breaking into.

Police didn't know any of this at the time of the confrontation. But as Schubert explained, all this evidence of Clark's increasingly erratic and desperate behavior would be presented to a jury if she attempted to charge the police in the case. The implication is that it would be hard to get a jury to convict the officers given the entire context of what happened.

She might be right about that, given how hard it can be to hold a police officer accountable for misconduct in a courtroom. Nevertheless, her decision not to charge either officer has inspired a lot of anger. Clark's mother has called the press conference by Schubert a "smear campaign" against her son. Many media outlets and activists have noted that Schubert's office has investigated 34 police shootings and has not recommended charges for any of them. This shooting is being investigated separately by the California attorney general's office.

In a statement, Lizzie Buchen, legislative advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union of California's Center for Advocacy and Policy, opined: "As a society, we give police officers the most significant power we confer on the government—the power to take someone's life. Our laws must set appropriate standards to ensure police officers use that power sparingly and with the goal of preserving human life. Of equal importance is the requirement that officers be held accountable when they violate these standards."

There's a reason for her focus on the standards applied when police shoot citizens. Clark's shooting has prompted pushes to reform California's laws. In the wake of Clark's death, Assemblymember Shirley Weber (D–San Diego) introduced legislation intended to change the rules of force for California police officers. Under Weber's bill, cops could not use deadly force unless "it is necessary to prevent imminent and serious bodily injury or death," with no reasonable alternative courses of action such as deescalation or retreat. The argument here is that had the two officers retreated when they thought Clark had shot a gun, they might have realized he was not armed and that they had been mistaken.

Weber's bill was shelved last summer, but she has reintroduced it with the new legislative session. Her bill is opposed by the Police Officers Research Association of California, the state's top law enforcement lobbying organization, which has promised to craft rival legislation.

The reform push that followed Clark's death also helped create the groundswell to open records of police misconduct so that California media and citizens can find out if officers who kill on the job have a history of bad behavior. For decades, all that information was kept secret from the public, but last year SB 1421 finally opened certain police personnel and investigation records to the public. Police unions, and even the state's Democratic attorney general, are fighting against compliance with the law, but it looks like they're losing.

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  1. So we have to sacrifice one citizen for each reform we hope to see actually implemented?
    Not what I would call a good deal.

    1. Not what I would call a good deal.

      *Especially* if we’re gonna start with the suicidal, repeat-offending domestic abusers who are breaking into cars.

      It’s almost sickeningly backwards. Quietly living in your TX home until the police show up and shoot your dog, your wife, and you dead gets you no investigation (yet). Robbing a liquor store and fighting with an officer, beating your wife repeatedly, generally necessitating interactions with the police until, eventually, *somebody* shoots you? Outrage and demands for reform!

  2. In a statement, Lizzie Buchen, legislative advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union of California’s Center for Advocacy and Policy, opined: “As a society, we give police officers the most significant power we confer on the government?the power to take someone’s life. Our laws must set appropriate standards to ensure police officers use that power sparingly and with the goal of preserving human life. Of equal importance is the requirement that officers be held accountable when they violate these standards.”

    Cops are trained in two things: Zero tolerance for non-compliance, and zero tolerance for anything that might threaten officer safety. In addition, disobedience is considered to be a threat to officer safety.

    Obey or die.

    1. “Obey or die”

      Police don’t kill people for simply failing to obey. But you clearly has zero interest in the facts and zero tolerance for anything that doesn’t support your biases.

      Going on a destructive rampage, leading the police on a foot chase, standing in a shooting stance with arms raised like he was holding a gun while pointing a shiny object at the police and his failure to obey the cops order to show his hands and saying “fuck you” instead, was why he died. He could have stop the chain of events at any point but he just kept on going, Stephon Clark is the only person responsible for his death.

      1. Police don’t kill people for simply failing to obey.

        Bullshit. They absolutely do. They kill people for even less than that.

        1. Bullshit. If it weren’t, you’d have provided evidence.

          1. Do your own homework. You’re on the right site to start.

  3. “The implication is that it would be hard to get a jury to convict the officers given the entire context of what happened.”

    Wrong, wrong, wrong. Government run propaganda campaigns (Blue Lives Matter/Back The Blue/Back The Badge/All First Responders Are Heroes) make it hard to get a jury to convict an officer of anything. And that is just how the government wants it.

    1. Doubtful, I just don’t think our governments propaganda works as well as you think. Only anecdotal but “Just Say, No” did not work against me and pretty much everyone I know. We choose to take or not take drugs based on family, religion, philosophy… but certainly not government propaganda.

    2. Blue Lives Matter isn’t government propaganda — it’s from right wing badge lickers.

      The real pro-cop propaganda is the last 50 years of cop hero TV shows (with the occasional acknowledgement that maybe, just maybe there are a few bad cops out there too.)

  4. Under Weber’s bill, cops could not use deadly force unless “it is necessary to prevent imminent and serious bodily injury or death,” with no reasonable alternative courses of action such as deescalation or retreat.

    With all due respect, how is this any different from “I feared for my life”?

    1. It’s more objective, duh.

      1. Yes. “It is necessary” rather than “I felt it was necessary”. I hope that means that when the “gun” turns out to be a cell phone or a cigarette lighter, the killing will be judged unnecessary and consequences can follow. I can dream, can’t I?

    2. The judge seemed to be tearing out her hair, fearing that people wanted to strip the trigger happy cops of their fundamental human right of self-defense.

      Not sure a self-defense strategy would work for me if I gunned someone down for waving a cell phone at me.

      1. It absolutely would not work, and if the person you were defending yourself against was a cop, a self-defense plea wouldn’t work even if he opened fire on you first.

        1. That’s why, now that we know that cops are actively hunting citizens, you should always refuse to comply, and give them every excuse to shoot you. Better to be carried by 6 that to be judged by 12.

          1. The only excuse they need is “I was scared”.

  5. Can we get an update on Houston, and maybe Jussie?

    Thanks

    1. It will likely have the same outcome as this and most other ones.

      1. I know the Houston legal system and am willing to lay odds that those cops will go scot-free and kill anyone who produces evidence of their other murders, with the full backing of redneck Dixiecrat prosecutors, politicians and judges who know how to count votes and assets. I expect to be at the Reasonoids meeting in Austin if anyone wants to fade.

  6. In a lengthy press conference, she walked through all the details, arguing that the officers had honestly mistaken a flash of light from Clark’s phone for muzzle fire. Furthermore, an investigation of Clark’s phone and the events of that weekend showed that he was deeply troubled following an apparently violent confrontation with the mother of his children. Clark was on probation for multiple crimes (two charges of domestic violence; one for robbery) and was likely concerned about the pending police response to the incident. A search of his phone showed that he had been both texting the woman over and over again, and also had been searching for online tips for killing himself.

    Sorry if I don’t feel bad that the police put a violent, suicidal criminal out of his misery. Try harder next time, Reason.

    1. You’ve gotta admit the “And he wasn’t even stealing anything from the cars he was breaking into.” is the perfect civil libertarian icing on the cake.

    2. What did the cops know at the time? That sentence says “an investigation of Clark’s phone and the events of that weekend …”

      All they knew was nowhere near enough to justify shooting him.

      1. I do think this one is a slightly different case than, say, Walter Scott or Daniel Shaver. He was behaving erratic and violent (toward property anyway), and it would be difficult to say whether he was running into a house to hide, or to attempt to hurt the homeowners.

        I don’t know if there’s a standard set of rules for policing that is going to prevent situations like this-suspect has been breaking shit, then runs from police, then reaches down and pulls an object out of his pants. We’re never going to get to zero police shootings, and situations like this are always going to be messy.

  7. What about state charges? Federal charges?

  8. Police officers should get no immunity whatsoever. They should be subject to the same penalties as any other person for injuring others. What’s that? You can’t arrest someone without injuring them? Then don’t be a cop. If we privatized police services, the private sector would figure out much more efficient methods of arresting a suspect that would minimize harm.

    1. Damn straight. Get rid of government police. If the government wants a cop, they should hire one, who would still be a civilian.

      1. OK, as long as I get to hire cops to defend me against the government’s contract cops.

    2. If we privatized police services, the private sector would figure out much more efficient methods of arresting a suspect that would minimize harm.

      A much more efficient method of arresting a suspect that minimizes harm makes him dead sometime between the first domestic abuse and the robbery.

      Not saying that’s the way the law should be, just saying that if his wife had shot him while he was abusing her, if someone had shot him during the robbery, or if his grandmother had shot him in the back yard thinking he was a robber or was going to (continue to) break into something, they likely would’ve walked as well.

      Get rid of special immunity and police unions, but not because of this case and don’t expect cases like these to go away even if you do.

      1. The wife or grandmother could well walk in your scenarios but it’s highly unlikely that they would get to do so without even a trial.

        No, ending the double-standard will not be a panacea – but it would be a darned good place to start.

        1. The wife or grandmother could well walk in your scenarios but it’s highly unlikely that they would get to do so without even a trial.

          I remain unconvinced that a DA would rake an abuse victim or a grandmother who just shot her own grandson over the coals for a corpse that was on its third strike. I think, in either case, the video would have to be damning.

    3. Chippter Morning Wood: “If we privatized police services, the private sector would figure out much more efficient methods of arresting a suspect that would minimize harm.

      Haven’t we been here already? The State Dept privatised their own security services during the Iraq War and the outcome was the Blackwater scandal. How many people was it they killed in just one Iraqi incident again?

      The notion that the private sector will do better than government ones is a libertarian pipe dream. The same laws which applied to government police and allowed them get away with murder would also be applied to privatized ones. The same police unions who represented government police would be out there representing (and mis-representing) privatised ones.

      The same DAs who seem to be so reluctant to prosecute government police who murder citizens are going to be equally reluctant to prosecute privatized ones.

      The same privileged protections from prosecution which government police enjoy are going to be extended to privatized ones.

      Bearing that mind, to claim that the private sector would “figure out much more efficient methods of arresting a suspect that would minimize harm” is ludicrous. If the firm’s employees do kill some innocent will the firm itself be punished?

      If not, then what incentive is there for them to do things differently from government police?

    4. Exactly. “I thought he had a gun” wouldn’t work if a civilian shot another civilian. And cops should be held to a higher standard of identifying threats — it’s part of their training.

      1. And even “he was shooting at me” wouldn’t work if the guy you shot turned out to be a cop.

  9. lots of people want to make this a racist shooting it wasn’t its a failure of training the police who no longer wait to let people drop their guns and in this and other cases continued to shoot the man after he had fallen to the ground. note the film from the police helicopter you can see the man flat on the ground while the police officers continued to shoot and even at that close range they missed several times because you can see the bullets richocheting off the conc patio. the police are trained to shoot for anything and watching them on tv they now pull their guns just for traffic stops

    1. Not racist at all — one of the cops was black too. Just cops being trigger happy.

  10. It’s certainly a borderline case, though to be sure? that doesn’t mean the police were in the right. But could they be proven in the wrong beyond a reasonable doubt?

  11. Politicians pay the police to shoot people for reasons they imagine will get them enough votes for reelection. The Dems want you shot over plant leaves, burning lawn leaves, using electricity or gasoline or slowness in payment of taxes. God’s Own Prohibitionists want you shot for plant leaves, not loving Jesus, flag burning, being brown or foreign, using birth control or enjoying sex. A vote for either force-initiating party tells its politicians and their competitors that you favor the initiation of deadly force. But a vote for libertarian candidates tells BOTH looter parties’ candidates and incumbents they are in danger of losing government paychecks, full medical benefits, early retirement at huge pensions and the power to order cops to shoot people who have violated nobody’s rights. The blood of that Houston couple, the brown guy, and tens of thousands more is on the hands of everyone who wasted potentially leveraged law-changing spoiler votes on Republican and Democrat-backed soft machine murderers. Proud now?

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  13. The thing that jumped out at me was how utterly unreasonable it was for police to believe that a flash of light from a cell phone was a muzzle flash when there was no accompanying muzzle sound. I’ve been around guns for the better part of my life and I’ve used suppressors and there is ALWAYS a sound. Always. 100% of the time. Lost in the debate about police shootings is the reasonableness standard. “I was scared” isn’t a legal defense if the fear wasn’t reasonable. Police had no prior notice of the suspect’s problems. You can only reasonably fear what you know. As a citizen, I am not allowed to use the person I shot’s past record or violence unless I knew about it in advance. Why is the standard for police different?

    1. Why is the standard for police different?

      Because the people who set the standards fear the police?

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