For California Lawmakers, Why One Police Shooting Should Trigger More Than A Question Of Excessive Force

Thursday, March 14, 2019
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For nearly two weeks now, Sacramento has been consumed by an individual who doesn’t hold office and never will.

That would be Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old unarmed black male who was shot to death by two Sacramento police officers, in his grandmother’s backyard, a year ago.

Clark roared back into the news earlier this month when Sacramento County’s district attorney released a report saying the shooting was justified; according to the findings, the officers “acted lawfully under the circumstances” and won’t face criminal charges. California attorney general Xavier Becerra also announced that his office won’t press charges. (Here’s a link to the two reports.)

The reaction played out along lines all too familiar when a question of excessive police force intermingles with one of racial justice. A large but peaceful protest led to a large number of arrests. Angry Sacramentans swarmed a city council meeting. City college and high school students walked out of classes.

There are two tragedies, the first obviously of a young man who lost his life. The other tragedy: California is missing out on a teachable moment.

In the immediate aftermath of the Sacramento DA’s report, two of California’s highest-profile politicians—governor Gavin Newsom and senator Kamala Harris—took a law-and-order path.

Newsom lamented what he called a “hard truth,” a criminal justice system that “treats young black and Latino men and women different than their white counterparts.”

Harris, speaking at a Sacramento town hall that was attended by Clark’s grandmother, talked about implicit bias in law enforcement: “When your bias is coupled with the fact that you carry a gun,” said California’s junior senator, “it is something that has to be a priority for us.”

For now, keep an eye on the progress of AB 392—the “California Act to Save Lives.” If approved and signed by Newsom (the same measure stalled in the legislature last year), it would change the standard for law enforcement’s legally using deadly force from “reasonable” to “necessary.” And it would require officers to exhaust alternative methods before resorting to deadly force.

But in regard to the brief life and violent death of Stephon Clark, police trigger policy is but one of several topics lawmakers should be discussing.

Others would include:

Recidivism. Though barely old enough to rent a car or legally purchase alcohol, Clark already had a multiyear criminal record. In July 2014, he received five years’ probation after pleading guilty in a robbery case. In 2015, he was arrested for what police called “procuring someone for the purpose of prostitution” (he pleaded no contest to a lesser misdemeanor charge of loitering for the purpose of engaging in prostitution). In 2016, Clark was arrested on a charge of “battery of a cohabitant”—again, pleading no contest.

Clark’s fatal encounter with the two police officers came after reports of an individual smashing car windows. Deputies in a sheriff’s department police helicopter saw Clark shatter a sliding glass door of a nearby home, then jump fences into the backyard where the shooting occurred.

The question: though California arrest rates have dropped 60% over the last three decades, blacks are three times more likely to be arrested than whites. Is this a function of law-enforcement focus, community ethos, or both?

Economics. In 2013, Stephon Clark graduated from high school, where he played football and was remembered as “a friendly kid with great manners and a great smile.”

A year later, he was before a judge.

Did Clark make the first of a series of bad choices, or did he in fact suffer from a lack of choices? What did Clark’s high school counselor advise? Did he receive any kind of vocational training? Was college ever an option?

According to January’s demographic labor statistics, the unemployment rate for California males ages 20 and over stands at 3.7%. For all black Californians, the unemployment rate stands at 6.6%, versus 5.1% for Hispanics and 4.2% for whites.

The question for the legislature: when a young black man graduates from high school in a large California city, what are his job prospects—and alternatives to avoiding the wrong temptations?

Relationships. Stephon Clark left behind a fiancée. Two days before his death, Sacramento police responded to a 911 call from her regarding possible domestic violence.

Clark was also the father of two boys, ages one and three at the time of the shooting. Three out of eight children born in California in 2017 were out-of-wedlock births (the state’s 37.5% average a shade below the national average of 39.8%). In 2005, the California average was 35.5% (the national average: 35.7%).

In California, nearly one in ten 11th graders (8%) were victims of physical abuse by a dating partner. According to a September 2017 Blue Shield of California Foundation survey, 34% of adult women reported being a victim of partner violence.

The questions for the legislature: are California’s public schools educating teen males about the wrongs of physically abusing a partner? Is there a legislative means for fostering healthier, less tempestuous relationships—or does responsibility start at the community and family level?

Drugs. The Sacramento DA’s report is also a grim toxicology report. Samples taken at Clark’s autopsy tested positive for alprazolam (Xanax), codeine, hydrocodone, etizolam, ethanol, cannabinoids and benzoylecgonine (cocaine metabolite). Nicotine, cotinine, diphenhydramine, and promethazine were also detected. An orange prescription bottle that contained 1.04 grams of marijuana was found on the ground near Clark’s remains.

According to the same report, on the night before he died Clark conducted Google searches for: “what pills can you die from” and “most commonly overdosed drugs.” He also reportedly texted multiple individuals in search of Xanax and valium.

Why was Clark engaged in drug-seeking behavior? Perhaps it had something to do with his legal status. Clark was on four grants of probation (two for domestic violence, one prostitution-related, and a fourth for robbery). Violating probation in the robbery case could have resulted in a state prison sentences; violating probation in the other cases might have sent him to county jail.

The question for the Legislature: according to an October 2018 report by the California Health Care Foundation, substance-use disorders are most prevalent among young adults ages 18 to 25; nearly a dozen Californians die each day as a direct result of drug use. What is the proper balance for the state to strike between treatment for the afflicted and cutting off the supply?

Such social pathologies are years in the making. It’s been nearly 55 years since Daniel Patrick Moynihan first warned the nation about out-of-wedlock births and the decline of the black family. Welfare reform, advanced by California and other states for a quarter of a century, also was seen as an opportunity to reverse generations of men, women and children trapped in an impoverished culture.

Addressing weighty problems takes time. Change doesn’t occur overnight. But it would be a welcome change in an era when lawmakers too often fall prey to overreaction and limited vision.

We’ll see if a tragedy that occurred only miles from the State Capitol will prompt California’s leaders to look at the big picture.