By Amy B Wang | The Washington Post
Nearly a year after an unarmed black man was fatally shot by Sacramento police, prosecutors on Saturday announced there would be no charges against the two officers who fired at and killed Stephon Clark.
Clark, a 22-year-old father of two, was fatally shot on the night of March 18, 2018, as he ran to the backyard of his grandmother’s Sacramento home while police were responding to a neighbor’s call about someone breaking into cars. Officers said they began shooting at Clark because they thought he was holding a gun; he was later found to have been holding an iPhone.
Police body camera and helicopter footage later showed the officers had fired at Clark 20 times. The official coroner’s report concluded Clark was shot seven times, while an independent autopsy ordered by Clark’s family showed he had been struck eight times, including six in the back.
Clark’s shooting sparked demonstrations in California’s capital and nationwide by people protesting police use of force. Demonstrators in Sacramento blocked fans from entering NBA games, marched on the city’s streets and gathered at a City Council meeting to protest. In January, Clark’s family filed a $20 million lawsuit against the city of Sacramento.
At a news conference Saturday, Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert acknowledged the “tremendous grief, anger and anxiety by the Clark family and by this community” since last March. She said she had met that morning with Clark’s mother, whose grief was “very apparent.”
“There is no question that the death of Stephon Clark is a tragedy, not just for his family but for this community,” Schubert said. “My job as a district attorney is to make sure that we conduct a full, fair and independent review of this shooting. That job means that I follow the facts in the law and that, in the process of this review, that we treat everyone with dignity, grace and fairness.”
Schubert announced that a months-long investigation supported the conclusion that the officers were justified in using deadly force against Clark.
“We must recognize that [police officers] are often forced to make split-second decisions. We must also recognize that they are under tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving circumstances,” Schubert said. “That is the crux of this whole case: Did the officers have an honest and reasonable belief they needed to defend themselves?” In this case, the officers believed they did, Schubert said.
For more than an hour, Schubert reviewed extensive footage and evidence leading up to the shooting. Schubert said DNA analysis showed Clark was the suspect in the vehicle break-ins that prompted a neighbor to call 911.
“That was not known at the time,” Schubert said.
She also replayed body camera footage of the moments just before the shooting, warning that it was “graphic and troubling to watch.” Investigators concluded that Clark, on the night of the shooting, had smashed three car windows, jumped fences into backyards and smashed the rear sliding window of a home while a helicopter was overhead, Schubert said.
In the video, the two officers can be seen following Clark into a dark backyard. As they rounded the corner, Clark was at least 30 feet away behind a picnic table, Schubert said.
In the video, one officer can be heard shouting: “Show me your hands! Gun! Show me your hands! Gun, gun, gun!”
Immediately afterward, the officers can be heard firing 20 times in the video. Then, an officer is heard saying: “He is down. No movement. We’re going to need additional units.”
Schubert also slowed down frames from body-camera video that showed a “flash of light” in Clark’s hands that one officer later said he believed was a muzzle flash from a gun, while the other officer said he believed it was light reflecting off a gun.
“They don’t have to wait to get shot to use deadly force,” Schubert said.
The decision not to charge the officers was not a surprise for some. In emails sent earlier this week, lawmakers were urged to avoid California’s Capitol over the weekend, while downtown Sacramento business owners were advised to prepare for protests, the Sacramento Bee reported, leading to speculation the district attorney’s decision might upset the community.
Mayor Darrell Steinberg said in an interview last year that he was “extremely conscious” of the concerns many have expressed regarding police accountability in recent years. “There is deep pain and anguish” in Sacramento, he said then. “It’s our job to bear some of that pain and to help translate the anguish and grieving and the historic pain [of black communities] into tangible and real change.”
Just under 1,000 people are shot and killed by police officers each year, according to The Washington Post’s database. A handful of those shootings each year lead to criminal charges, and convictions are even more rare, which has prompted intense criticism from civil rights activists across the country.
The Washington Post’s Mark Berman and Alex Horton contributed to this report.