The Sacramento Cop-Out

The city’s district attorney not only declined to charge the officers involved in Stephon Clark’s death, but implied the victim wanted to die

California has an assisted-suicide law. It was in effect when Stephon Clark went running into his grandmother’s backyard nearly a year ago, pursued by two Sacramento police officers who shot and killed him there. But the state’s End of Life Option Act didn’t apply to Clark. Sacramento district attorney Anne Marie Schubert, who announced Sunday that she wouldn’t charge his killers with a crime, knew that Clark wasn’t terminally ill. But Schubert, who put up fences on public property outside her G Street office in downtown Sacramento last March to shoo away protesters, went further. She also heavily implied that Clark was suicidal at the time of his death.

In both her 80-minute press conference and the report that followed, Schubert noted Clark’s inexcusable history of domestic violence against his fiancée and the mother of his two children, Salena Manni. She also mentioned his fear of being incarcerated again for a new incident that occurred two days before he died. The report indicated that the contents of Clark’s cell phone, the same one that the cops mistook for a gun that night, showed that he’d been doing searching for “information related to suicide the day before and the day of the fatal shooting” and had sent a text to Manni on the 17th that read, “Let’s fix our family or I’m taking all of these.” Pictured, according to Schubert’s report, were a handful of Xanax pills.

Even if Clark hoped that the pursuit would end in his death, it isn’t necessarily legal for police in California to help him commit “suicide by cop.” That phrase, a convenient fiction since it absolves those doing the actual killing, has been used to both explain why people are the victims of officer-involved shootings and to excuse the officers who perpetrate the acts. But here’s the rub: Schubert later denied that she intended to convey that Clark had a death wish. So why, then, did she bring up his mental state at all? She claimed that it would have been admissible in court had the case gone to trial. So what? That doesn’t fully explain what happened that night, nor why she filed no charges.

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Reached by Rolling Stone for comment and clarification, Schubert’s office said the District Attorney “is not available for follow-up interviews or further statements.”

The district attorney’s decision was the result of an unjust process: Cops investigate other cops, then a prosecutor — who works with those cops all the time on cases — relies upon their judgment. This one also relied upon their cash: Schubert took in $13,000 in campaign donations from law enforcement last March less than a week after Clark was shot. No matter how many outside experts she lined up to bolster her decision, the D.A.’s Sunday announcement not to prosecute the officers with murder or another related crime was injury enough. This is a Sacramento community that has seen the newly re-elected Schubert investigate more than 30 such police shootings and not file a single charge. It was an insult to African-Americans throughout the nation who have seen district attorneys give cops a pass for these types of incidents all too regularly.

We may have expected Schubert to exonerate the officers, then all but prosecute the dead victim. It’s one thing for the Sacramento D.A. to describe why the case is not winnable, or why the cops allegedly didn’t break any laws. It is quite another for her to sully the memory of a dead man and the reputation of his family with previously undisclosed facts that bore no relevance to the guilt or innocence of the officers involved. She did the latter on Sunday and impugned the mentally ill in the process by insinuating that Clark’s desperation would cause him to act criminally and to put police in a life-threatening position.

Stevante Clark, the brother of Stephon Clark who was killed by police last year, speaks during a news conference at the Genesis Church in Sacramento, Calif., on March 3rd 2019.

Even now, 352 days after the incident, we still don’t know how many times Clark was shot. Schubert reports seven times, though she doesn’t detail how many bullets the cops fired at him. (It was 20, by most reported counts.) The independent autopsy findings released last March by forensic pathologist Bennet Omalu, which Schubert disputed in her report, concluded that Clark was shot eight times — including six times in the back. Not once was he hit in the front of his body, Omalu concluded, despite the Sacramento police claim that he was in a “shooting position.” Well, why would Clark be in a shooting position if he didn’t have a gun?

Clark’s brother, Stevante, has rebounded from a well-publicized hospitalization for his mental health issues since Stephon’s death. A nationwide study published last summer concluded that when police officers kill unarmed black people, it damages the mental health of African-Americans living in those states. 

Sacramento police arrested 84 people Monday night at a protest, including a Sacramento Bee reporter. They were demonstrating because they want the officers who killed Clark fired. I also believe these men should lose their jobs. But fundamental to any civil rights demand is a call for increased mental health awareness among law enforcement. Not only can cities save lives with properly trained personnel to handle and de-escalate situations, but in circumstances like Clark’s, that awareness can ensure that a person’s despair won’t be weaponized against them once they are dead and buried. From Dontre Hamilton to Freddie Gray, mental illness has played a part in police killings — either making them more likely, as per studies, or used as an excuse even when the justification is sketchy. To even imply that Clark wanted to die is to use a person’s pain in their absence, to damn them once by killing them and then again by speaking for them out of turn.

What happened in Sacramento that night was the logical conclusion of “broken windows” policing at its most extreme: a helicopter and several officers pursuing a potential vandal in a residential neighborhood. Schubert is part of a larger criminal justice apparatus that has gone awry in California, the state where police are most likely to commit lethal force first against black people. But that is why the district attorney’s report, while it offers a token note of sympathy for Clark’s family at the end, could have instead done some critical thinking about how we ended up here in the first place. Holding the police accountable may be too much to expect from the prosecutor who literally fenced out nonviolent protesters, only to later cast blame upon a dead man for his own demise.