Stephon Clark shooting needs a local independent investigation


Sacramento DA should independently investigate Stephon Clark’s death


 By Neill Franklin and Stephen Downing


Published on 5.10.18 by the Sacramento News & Review

On March 18th, 2018, Sacramento PD officers fatally shot 22-year old, unarmed Stephon Clark.

As head law enforcement officer for Sacramento County, District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert is charged with leading her jurisdiction through difficult and sometimes tragic situations. But rather than leading, Schubert is taking a backseat. She recently announced her office’s investigation into the shooting of Stephon Clark would not begin until the Sacramento Police Department concludes its internal investigation. What’s worse, she has indicated that the SPD will lead the investigation. They will decide who is worth talking to, and who is not. They will conduct the interviews with the witnesses, frame the questions and thus choose whose voices are heard. What’s more, they will question the officers involved, with the district attorney serving as no more than a passive observer.

Schubert's failure to impartially investigate Clark's death sends a chilling message to a grieving community. Clark's family will find no comfort in an investigation led by the same agency that caused their loved one's death. The residents of Sacramento will be skeptical of a police investigation of their own friends and colleagues. And police will suffer when they find community members less willing to report crime and come forward as witnesses.

But it doesn't have to be this way. Rather than initiate an internal investigation that will create tension between police and civilians across the United States, Sacramento can and should bring in an outside cohort to review the case and improve overall transparency. The external investigation by California's attorney general is laudable, but does not displace the need for a local investigation by DA Schubert. Schubert, not A.G. Xavier Becerra, has been democratically elected by the people of Sacramento to protect them from crime, no matter who the alleged perpetrator. She is not only the lead law enforcement officer in Sacramento; she is, or ought to be, a leader in the fullest sense of the word. A leader does not shirk responsibility, even when that responsibility comes with a political cost. A leader makes hard choices, and does so proudly.

Every time the public sees a police officer killing an unarmed person and the officer is acquitted without a rigorous external review, the entire justice system loses legitimacy. Failing to root out bad actors in the system only breeds resentment, and this effect is widespread. Every time we fail to hold a police officer accountable in one city, people all over the country lose faith in their own police. Accountability is pro-police because it shows we are truly working for the interests of the people we serve.

A robust and independent investigation could change everything. By critically examining what the officers knew, said and did prior to shooting at Clark, Schubert could help the Sacramento Police Department prevent the next fatal encounter. By looking into how officers were trained to handle encounters, especially encounters with people they believed to be armed, the Police Department could do a better job of preparing its officers for events which put the public and officers in danger. And by educating the public on what she finds, Schubert could help Sacramento residents and police officers better understand and trust each other.

In California, unlike many other states, DA Schubert has the authority to file charges against the officers involved in Clark's death, and to do so immediately. But if she feels more investigation is needed, she should open an independent grand jury investigation, and use that tool to explore what happened in the minutes and seconds leading up to Clark's death, as well as the training those officers received in the weeks and months before they took to the streets. Conducting this investigation independently is the only way to maintain integrity and credibility. It would benefit Stephon Clark's family, the people of Sacramento and the police officers who work to make it safe.

Retired Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Stephen Downing is an executive board member for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a nonprofit group of police, judges, prosecutors and other criminal justice professionals who use their expertise to advance public safety solutions.

Major Neill Franklin (retired) is a 34-year veteran of the Baltimore Police and Maryland State Police Departments. He’s now the executive director for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership.

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