A police cover-up breaks down in Sacramento

February 23, 2017

Alex Moyle reports from California's capital city on revelations that expose a brutal police department--and a brutal system that consigns the mentally ill to the streets.

FOR JOSEPH Mann, suffering a mental health crisis while Black and homeless on the streets of Sacramento proved to be a death sentence.

The execution was carried out last July by Sacramento police officers Randy Lozoya and John Tennis, who twice attempted to run over Mann in their patrol vehicle--and, when that failed, exited and gunned him down, firing 18 times and riddling Mann with 14 bullets.

Yet Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert has since cleared both officers of any wrongdoing.

That's despite dash-cam video from the patrol car driven by Mann's murderers, which captured their conversation leading up to his death. "Fuck this guy," Lozoya can be heard saying. "I'm gonna hit him." Tennis responds: "Okay. Go for it."

After the attempts to run down Mann failed, one of the officer says, "We'll get him," before both exit the vehicle and murder him. The tape ends with the sound of Mann's death agony.

Before police were forced to release video footage, the original police account offered to the Sacramento Bee and to Joseph Mann's family portrayed the events as the heroic actions of two veteran officers defending their own lives and the safety of bystanders. "Mann turned toward them, still armed with the knife," according to the initial Bee account. "It was then that two officers, fearing for their lives and worried he might hurt citizens in the area, fired their service weapons hitting Mann 'multiple times,' according to police."

In the streets of Sacramento after the prosecutor cleared two officers in the killing of Joseph Mann
In the streets of Sacramento after the prosecutor cleared two officers in the killing of Joseph Mann

Robert Mann, the brother of the victim, has been raising questions since right after the killing. The Mann family demanded the release of the dash-cam video for months, but their pleas were ignored by Chief Sam Somers Jr. and the Sacramento Police Department. "They lied to me flat out," Mann told reporters. "They told me my brother was aggressive, he was coming at officers and they had no time to make any other decision but to shoot my brother."

It's not surprising that Sacramento police ignored the Mann family's repeated requests to release or at least show them the video of their loved one's death. Given the damning evidence it contained and the blatant lies initially offered to the press, it seems clear that the department never intended to release the footage at all.

It only came to light after the Sacramento Bee obtained surveillance footage from a private citizen that conclusively contradicted fabricated police account of the slaying.

Robert Mann poignantly expressed his rage at the killing and the cover-up that followed:

These officers need to be tried with murder. They don't need administrative leave, they need to be incarcerated immediately. All weapons need to be taken from these animals. Their mentality is one of just being killers, and I question how many other cases...that they've gotten away with because there was no video camera, there was no proof.

OTHER OFFICERS who arrived on the scene before Lozoya and Tennis were widely praised for trying to de-escalate the situation, in contrast to the brazen approach of their trigger-happy colleagues. One of these officers can be heard yelling, "Jesus fucking Christ!" immediately after the murder.

But whatever regrets the "good" officers felt at Mann's killing, they didn't feel compelled to rat on Lazoya and Tennis for murdering a fleeing man right before their eyes.

Police Chief Somers, widely regarded as a "good" cop, knew the truth about the killing from the outset, and he lied, straight-faced, to the press, the City Council and the victim's family. The blue wall of silence would have easily stood up if the Bee hadn't obtained the surveillance video.

And now, despite the truth being known, there have still not been any real consequences for the Sacramento Police Department.

Community pressure arising from the Mann's killing was enough to lead to Somers' early retirement (with full pension) in December, but the officers who pulled the trigger were never indicted, fired, suspended or even placed on leave, instead having merely been placed on modified duty. They have since been cleared of all criminal wrongdoing by the district attorney.

The city agreed to a $719,000 settlement with the Mann family, but on the condition of admitting no liability.

Under the pressure from community activists, the Sacramento City Council last November passed a series of police reform measures.

A civilian oversight commission created by the City Council is toothless: It can't access the confidential personnel records of officers; it has only advisory/review powers; it can't directly investigate misconduct or impose discipline; and the City Council is free to ignore its requests for investigations.

The new measures also requires police to release video to the public in officer-involved fatalities within 30 days, but there is a glaring loophole--the police are required to release video so long as it "does not hamper, impede or taint" an investigation.

ANY IDEA that the Mann case was an aberration evaporated after the release of the findings of an investigation into the killing of another Black, homeless and mentally ill man by Sacramento Police last April. The officers involved were, of course, cleared of wrongdoing, but the similarities point to systemic issues.

In this incident, 40-year-old Dazion Flenaugh was shot dead after suffering a breakdown in the back seat of a police cruiser.

Police had informed Flenaugh that he would just be given a ride, but he panicked when he was locked in the back of a police cruiser and left there. On the police cruiser camera, Flenaugh can be heard saying "This is what I get for fuckin' with the police...I'm dead." He can be seen writhing in an attempt to get out of the vehicle.

Officer Paul Fong responded to Flenaugh's panic by opening the door and demanding "What are you doing, freak?" Flenaugh bolted, leading police on a chase through the surrounding neighborhood. When a bystander asked what was happening, Fong responded, "There's some nut--tweak--just freaking out. He's back there somewhere. If you see him, just hit him with a baseball bat a couple times. That'll mellow him out."

According to police, Flenaugh ran through the neighborhood, hopping fences, breaking into homes and collecting knives along the way. The cops released footage purportedly showing Flenaugh swinging a pickaxe at a door. The official account of the shooting reads almost identically to the story initially told about Mann: According to police, Flenaugh, armed with knives, charged three officers, who, fearing for their lives, opened fire.

Dazion's brother Damon Flenaugh gave voice to the justifiable skepticism about the police account:

I believe that they were absolute negligent in how they dealt with my brother. I really don't know what made him snap like that, but I know his life. There's a lot of pressure being homeless and always being harassed all the time, so he probably just snapped. And I would really have liked the cops to be cops that day, and seen that my brother needed help, not killing.

Officials have acknowledged that footage of the Flenaugh pursuit was withheld from the public, and they claim that no video of the shooting itself exists. Upon learning this, Damon Flenaugh responded, "They just keep lying to us. They are not trustworthy and we are supposed to trust them with our lives. Fundamentally, how does that work? You are not building any faith in the people."

THE KILLINGS of Mann and Flenaugh come amid a context of rising rents, gentrification and an acute homelessness crisis in Sacramento.

With the hyper-gentrification of the San Francisco Bay Area driving more people into the Central Valley, displacement is rapidly increasing in Sacramento, which was named by numerous media outlets as one of the country's hottest housing markets this year.

Thousands already live on the streets in the capital city of the richest state in the country, and the number is growing. Worse, the death toll among the homeless is on the rise--in 2016, the bodies of 81 homeless people were found around the city.

In spite of this, a plan to build an emergency tent city that could save the lives of the most vulnerable was flatly rejected by the City Council. And a recent decision to open a temporary emergency shelter with room for about 40 people was made only after two homeless people died on the grounds of City Hall in the course of a week.

As we've seen around the country, racist police violence and gentrification go hand in hand. It's a telling statement about a liberal, Democratic-run city that its political leaders are willing to spend endless sums on a violent, racist police force, but not on measures that would meet basic human needs.

As far as the Sacramento Police Department was concerned, Joseph Mann and Dazion Flenaugh had three strikes against them from the start: They were Black, homeless and mentally ill. Their murders and the ensuing attempted cover-ups demonstrate the irredeemable rottenness of the department, from officers on the street up to the Chief of Police.

New Mayor Darrel Steinberg's proposal to spend more time and money on police training is no solution. The Sacramento Police Department needs to be defunded and those funds reallocated to mental health, social services, emergency shelters for the homeless and long-term affordable housing--things that would help people, instead of killing them.

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