Ed. Note: Greg Prickett is former police officer and supervisor who went to law school, hung out a shingle, and now practices criminal defense and family law in Fort Worth, Texas. While he was a police officer, he was a police firearms instructor, and routinely taught armed tactics to other officers.
On Saturday, March 17, 2018 in Sacramento, Stephan Alonzo Clark was in his grandparents’ back yard. Police, who were looking for a man suspected of breaking car windows, came into the backyard, confronted him, and fired 20 rounds, killing him.
Clark was not armed and only had a cellphone. The Sacramento Police have a policy of releasing their video within 30 days of an officer-involved shooting. Having reviewed the videos[i] , they illustrate a common problem in the way we currently train police officers.
(This video is from the Washington Post, and they have synchronized the audio from all the body cameras and the helicopter.)
This is telling in several ways. First, it shows the problems with current police training, and it points out the errors of the officers. At no time in their contact with Clark did either officer identify themselves as police officers. The first command you is “Show me your hands!” Clark then moves from the side of the house into the backyard, and both officers follow.
It should be noted that it was pitch-black outside, and the officers were wearing dark police uniforms. It would be impossible for Clark to know positively that these were police officers, even with the police-type commands that were being used. The officers stopped at the back corner of the house, and an officer yelled, “Show me your hands—gun!” There was a second pause, and then a command of “Show me your hands, gun, gun, gun!” followed by 20 shots, of which 15 were fired after Clark had already collapsed to the ground.
There is no doubt in my mind that the officers are going to be cleared of any criminal wrongdoing, and there is also no question in my mind that this shooting wasn’t necessary for the following reasons:
- First, the officers never identified themselves as police officers, as noted above. Someone just barking out commands in the dark doesn’t cut it.
- Second, it appears that Clark complied with the commands to show his hands, one of which was holding a cellphone. It’s a poor command under these circumstances, just as telling a suspect to take their hands out of their pockets. If they are holding something, the officer has to evaluate it in a second, and the officers are conditioned to expect empty hands, which is unrealistic.
- Officers are trained to err on the side of their own safety, the so-called “First Rule of Law Enforcement,” which is to make sure that the officer goes home alive at the end of his shift.
- The call was for property damage, or at most, car burglary. It’s a property crime; there is no reason to believe that the public would be in any danger if the suspect was not immediately taken into custody.
- So when Clark, complying with the commands to show his hands, turned, the one officer immediately yells gun three times and fires, without any other commands.
The way the investigation will go is that both officers will state that they thought the cellphone was a gun and were in fear of their lives. And the investigation will be closed as a justified shooting.
He is afraid of people who keep their hands in their pockets; he is wary of people who get too close or videotape him or want to shake hands. Everyone is a potential assailant.
Police officers don’t accept this and push back, but Hayes is right. In a PoliceOne interview in 2016, Hayes said:
We’re basically keeping our cops from being able to think through these problems and understand the context. In doing so, we’re creating scared cops that think every old lady is going to attack them, and every young kid is going to have a gun in his pants and the ninjas are going to pop out of the ceiling on building searches and there’s a suspect in the trunk of every car that you stop. It’s almost become to the point where it never stops — to the point where it’s paralyzing our people from making good decisions.
That, in my opinion, is what happened in Sacramento. The officers were afraid of the suspect and assumed the worse. There commands were poorly chosen, and because they were trained to assume the worse, when Clark showed his hands in compliance with their order, the officers mistook the cellphone for a gun. That was enough to trigger their deadly force response.
A much better option would have been to order him to put his hand up, and not to move. From there, you can hold him at gunpoint until more officers arrive, you can have him go to his knees and then prone him out, you have the ability to slow down the encounter and to make better choices. A command to show his hands should not come until he has been put into a position where his hands and their contents can’t harm the officers.
But until we convince the police that this needs to change, it won’t, and we’ll continue to have incidents like this.