If Sacramento were Ferguson or Baltimore or some other American city, businesses would’ve been burned to the ground by now and residents would be at each other’s throats.
There’s a grim script that comes into play whenever a city’s police force kills an unarmed black man. It starts with a nonviolent protest, which can escalate into a riot, which is then followed by politicians appealing for calm and making empty promises to change, while a criminal investigation of the officers winds its way toward an inevitably disappointing conclusion.
So far, though, Sacramento seems to be writing its own script, which is promising not just for them, but for all of California.
Last Monday, three weeks after two officers gunned down an unarmed Stephon Clark in his grandparents’ backyard, the American Civil Liberties Union held its annual lobbying day at the Capitol to promote legislation prompted, in part, by the young father’s death.
Front and center is Assembly Bill 931, carried by Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, and Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento. It would require police to use deadly force only as a last resort, and instead try non-lethal tactics to subdue suspects first.
Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, has Senate Bill 1421, which takes aim at the California Peace Officers’ Bill of Rights by forcing law enforcement agencies to disclose the details of use-of-force investigations and confirmed cases of crimes committed by officers on duty.
That none of this is state law already is truly disturbing.
Then, on Tuesday, the Sacramento City Council will roll out some proposed changes to the police department’s policies and procedures. This could include a new pursuit policy, deterring officers from chasing suspects the way they did Clark, and new guidelines for body cameras, preventing officers from shutting off the microphones the way they did while Clark was bleeding in the grass.
As Councilman Jay Schenirer told members of The Bee’s editorial board on Friday, “We’ve got to figure out what went wrong so we can make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Not long ago, this was a controversial point of view, given the lobbying power and shamelessly deep pockets of law enforcement unions. (Ahem, District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert.) Today, though, it is being echoed by the mayor, the entire City Council, police Chief Daniel Hahn, most of the candidates for governor and even Sen. Kamala Harris.
“There is a lot of work that needs to be done,” the former California attorney general said on Thursday. “I think about it not only in the context of Sacramento but I think about it in the context of those people who are at the highest levels of leadership.”
She’s right. But that “work” shouldn’t stop with police reform. Because this isn’t just about cops shooting black people at disproportionate rates. It’s also about the way Sacramento and supposedly progressive California disenfranchise black people at disproportionate rates with public policy.
It’s about how the median household income for black people in Sacramento County is about $25,000 less than it is for white people, and about how homeownership among black families continues to lag behind that of white families.
Unjust policies create unjust neighborhoods, which is then used as an excuse for unjust policing. What officers did to Stephon Clark, Joseph Mann and Nandi Cain Jr. didn’t happen in a vacuum.
This is something that Martin Luther King Jr., buried 50 years ago Monday, understood more than most people. By the time the civil rights leader was assassinated, he had expanded his focus from racial injustice to economic injustice with the Poor People’s Campaign. He knew that black people were on the bottom rung of American society in every way.
Not enough has changed since 1968.
But what’s promising is that many on the City Council seem to get it. Angelique Ashby, who represents North Natomas, readily admits that from parks to streetlights to community centers, her district “looks like a different city” than Meadowview, where Clark lived.
“What we really need to address here is systemic oppression,” she told the editorial board last week. “It’s a poor neighborhood and there are a lot of issues there that need to be addressed.”
The world is watching, Sacramento.
Erika D. Smith is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee. Connect with her at 916-321-1185.