SACRAMENTO, Calif — Two California police officers who killed Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man who was fatally shot in his grandmother’s backyard last year, will not face criminal charges, Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert said Saturday.
Schubert described a troubled 22-year-old going through a tumultuous time in his life, worried about jail time after being accused of assaulting the mother of his children days earlier. She said toxicology reports showed Clark had Codeine, Xanax, marijuana and alcohol in his system and that he had researched ways to commit suicide before the fatal encounter with police.
“Was a crime committed?” Schubert told reporters. “The answer to that question is no and, as a result, there was no criminal liability.”
Schubert would not characterize what happened as a “suicide by cop” but said “many things were weighing heavily” on Clark’s mind at the time of the shooting.
Clark was unarmed when he was shot seven times, including three times in the back, according to an autopsy released by the Sacramento County Coroner’s office. An independent autopsy found that Clark was shot eight times, with six of those wounds in his back, according a forensic pathologist retained by Clark’s family.
“Both (officers) describe that Mr. Clark was sanding with his arms extended in a shooing stance,” Schubert said. “Both officers believed he was pointing a gun at them.”
One officer said he saw a spark that he thought was a muzzle flash from a gun, she said. The other thought the flash was light reflecting off a gun. Clark was holding his cellphone.
The case became a symbol of strained relations between the police and the community as well as racial tensions in the state capital. Bracing for protests, city officials and community leaders appealed for peace.
Clark’s mother, Se’Quette, told reporters in Sacramento that she was outraged.
“They executed my son,” she said of the officers. “They executed him in my mom’s backyard and it’s not right.”
Schubert, she said, focused on her son’s personal problems instead of the officers’ actions.
“That’s not a permit to kill him,” Se’Quette Clark said. “What matters is that those officers came around that corner on a vandalism call and killed him.”
Jamilia Land, a friend of Clark’s family and member of CA Families United for Justice, in a statement said no prosecutor’s “ruling can change the most important fact — Stephon should be alive.”
“Stephon was unarmed and in no way a threat. Instead, they shot 20 times and hit Stephon at least 8 times. Even then, they did not call for medical care even though he was bleeding profusely. Now the Sacramento District Attorney says it’s unjust to charge these officers with Stephon’s murder — where is Stephon’s justice?”
Lizzie Buchen, legislative advocate for the ACLU of California’s Center for Advocacy and Policy, said the “decision opens a new wound for the Sacramento community and serves as a potent reminder that California’s law on the use of deadly force needs immediate reform.”
“As a society, we give police officers the most significant power we confer on the government — the power to take someone’s life,” she said in a statement. “Our laws must set appropriate standards to ensure police officers use that power sparingly and with the goal of preserving human life. Of equal importance is the requirement that officers be held accountable when they violate these standards.”
Authorities said the two Sacramento officers who shot Clark were responding to a report that a man had broken car windows and was hiding in a backyard. The person who called 911 told police the man — later identified as Clark — had jumped a fence and police discovered he’d moved moved through two backyards into his grandmother’s property, Schubert said. Clark was shot in her backyard on the night of March 18, 2018.
Schubert, who opened her news conference with an apology to the Clark family, said she met with his mother Saturday morning.
“There is no question that the death of Stephon Clark is a tragedy, not just for his family but for this community,” she said.
The prosecutor went through a lengthy presentation involving body worn cameras, helicopter surveillance video and photos. She said Clark vandalized three cars, moved to a backyard and broke a sliding glass door to a room where an 89-year-old man was watching television. He then jumped to another yard.
Directed to Clark’s location by the sheriff’s helicopter, the officers chased him to a backyard.
“Hey, show me your hands,” the lead officer said. “Stop. Stop.”
Clark was about 30 feet away behind a picnic table, the prosecutor said.
“Show me your hands,” an officers said, breathing heavily. “Gun. Gun.”
About 20 shots are heard in the body camera video. An officer said, “He is down. No movement. We’re going to need additional units.”
“We must recognize that they are often forced to make split-second decisions and we must recognize that they are under tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving circumstances,” Schubert said of police.
The prosecutor said Clark was facing charges stemming from an assault two days before on the mother of his two children.
“There were many things weighing heavily on his mind,” she said, adding that he had used his smart phone to research penalties for domestic violence and ways to commit suicide. Schubert said the mother of his children had responded negatively to text messages in which he attempted to reconcile.
After the shooting, protests erupted for several days in Sacramento as tempers flared. Frustrated residents and Black Lives Matter activists urged accountability for the shooting. At one point, protesters blocked the entrance to the Golden 1 Center, where the Sacramento Kings play, forcing them to play a game against the Atlanta Hawks in a nearly empty arena.
Police said the officers who fired at Clark believed he was pointing a gun at them. But investigators determined Clark was actually carrying a cell phone.
Clark’s family last month filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the officers involved and the city of Sacramento.
The federal lawsuit alleges the young man was racially profiled, and the officers used excessive force in the shooting incident. The two officers failed to identify themselves or issue a verbal warning before firing approximately 20 shots, the suit said. The lawsuit also alleges the officers did not get him medical attention immediately after the shooting.
Mayor Darrell Steinberg devoted much of his 2019 “State of the City” speech to the shooting and apologized to Clark’s family and the community, CNN affiliate KOVR reported.
“How do I as your Mayor give voice to the pain that is so real and so raw in our community?” Steinberg asked.
He also acknowledged the disappointment among many residents should prosecutors decide to not charge the officers.
“If they decide not to bring criminal charges based on the existing state law, I know that there will be real anger about such a result,” he said.
City officials had been meeting with residents before Saturday’s announcement in hopes of preventing new protests, the station reported.
The Sacramento District Attorney’s Office was reviewing whether the officers’ conduct constituted a crime that could be prosecuted under state law. The California Attorney General’s Office previously said it was also conducting an independent investigation.
In October, the district attorney’s office said it received “the voluminous investigative report and related materials” about the shooting from Sacramento police.
Last month, the district attorney’s office said prosecutors also received “substantial investigative reports and related materials” from Department of Justice investigators in the Attorney General’s Office.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra in January recommended an overhaul of force-related policies within the department. City officials welcomed the input and said they expect they will put the plan into action. Hie said an officer’s response to a suspect’s actions should be proportional to the nature of a threat and that he or she “exhaust all reasonably available alternatives before using deadly force.”
The police department should also prohibit officers from shooting at, or from, moving vehicles, Becerra’s report said.