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Quick release of Sacramento police shooting video is result of reforms that followed another killing in 2016

"Our goal is to release it is as soon as we can, and we’ve evolved into that," Police Chief Daniel Hahn said.
Image: People gather outside the home where Stephon Alonzo Clark, 22, was shot and killed
On Wednesday, people gather outside the home where Stephon Alonzo Clark, 22, was shot and killed by police officers in Sacramento, California.Rich Pedroncelli / AP

One of most shocking aspects of a video showing Sacramento police shooting an unarmed man is how quickly the files became public — only three days after the killing.

That's a blink of an eye in the world of police investigations. Bystander video is another matter, as seen in the cases of Walter Scott, Philando Castile or Eric Garner, but many high profile police-shooting cases go months, or even years, without the release of videos captured by cameras mounted on officers or patrol cars.

Yet Sacramento is different. And the reason dates back to July 11, 2016.

On that day, a pair of city officers shot to death Joseph Mann, 50, who was holding a pocket knife. At the time, there had already been a string of complaints about police using deadly force to subdue suspects, and Sacramento found itself in the middle of a national debate over police accountability.

Making matters worse, the police department waited about two months to release dash-cam footage of the Mann killing. That "lengthy delay" compounded community outrage, the city's police watchdog, the Office of Public Safety Accountability, later said in a report.

That outrage included complaints about the deterioration of trust between the police and public. The city ordered a review, which culminated in a batch of reforms that included the use of officer-worn body cameras and the mandated release of video of officer-involved shootings within 30 days of the incident.

Those changes made it possible for the Sacramento Police Department to release the video of officers shooting to death Stephon Clark on Sunday night, Chief Daniel Hahn said Thursday in an interview with NBC News.

While the new policy, about a year old, requires the release of videos within 30 days, the department aims to get them out quicker, Hahn said.

"Our goal is to release it is as soon as we can, and we’ve evolved into that," Hahn said. "If this had happened two years ago, we wouldn’t have body cameras, and we wouldn’t have the release policy that we have."

The chief said that it helps everyone involved ─ the family of the victim, the police department, and the public ─ to see the video.

"I really wanted people to have a conversation about the facts and one of the best ways for people to see as many facts as they can is by watching with their own eyes," he said.

Nevertheless, the shooting has stirred widespread anger. Community activists and Clark's relatives have questioned why the officers needed to fire 20 shots at the 23-year-old father of two. Organizers had also planned an anti-police-brutality rally at Sacramento's City Hall on Thursday evening.

Police said the encounter began with reports of a man smashing car windows. In three police videos, one from each of the two officers who shot Clark, and a third from a sheriff department's helicopter, officers said they believed the suspect was armed.

IMAGE: Stephon Clark
Stephon Clark in an undated photo.Courtesy Sonia Lewis

The body-cam footage shows the officers running after him and shouting at him to stop. The chase ends at the corner of a house where the suspect appears to be trapped by a fence.

The officers shouted at him to show his hands. Three seconds later, one officer yells "Gun! Gun! Gun!" and both officers began firing.

Afterwards, one of the officer says he thought he saw a weapon. But no weapon was found. But a light-colored cell phone is visible in the video.

In one of the videos, the audio cuts out, apparently after the officers turned of the sound on their body-worn cameras. Hahn said he couldn't explain why that happened, and would be part of the investigation into the shooting.

"This incident and the resulting actions in the community and the sentiments and the anger just shows that we have a ways to go in our relationship between law enforcement and the community in Sacramento because if we had a great trusting relationship we wouldn't have some of these things and we're working toward that," Hahn said.

But Hahn also said that it has been healthy for the community to watch the videos because they're "talking about the facts."