Sacramento Police Video: This Was No Safety Stop

Department trips over itself to excuse an “unintentional” crash that knocked a boy off his feet

Teen on bike (lower right of image) signals to police just before getting pulled over. Screengrab from police dash-cam footage.
Teen on bike (lower right of image) signals to police just before getting pulled over. Screengrab from police dash-cam footage.

On July 22, Sacramento police stopped a sixteen-year-old boy riding his bike on a sidewalk at night. Their stated reason for stopping him was that he didn’t have a light on his bike, although the video they just released does not indicate that they questioned him about a light or his riding.

Instead, as seen above, the officers ask the boy his age and tell him he looks older than fifteen (the age the boy gave).

“For reals…?” The boy’s attempt at a nonchalant response suggests he has been stopped this way before, and that he is aware the stop has nothing to do with concern for his safety while cycling at night.

“What are you so worried about?” an officer asks.

The boy says he’s not worried.

The officer moves to get out of the vehicle, “You’re not trippin’?”

The subject of the bike light – the supposed reason for the stop – never comes up. Instead, questioning moves to the boy’s history: “You ever been arrested before?”

The other officer, presumably the one who recognized the youth (information the detective narrating this portion of the video provides), asks, “You have a warrant again?”

The kid immediately makes a break for it, leaving his bike behind (the police say he started to pedal away but the officer grabbed his bike).

Another video, this one taken from a different police car dash-cam, shows what happens next: the back-up officer arrives in his police vehicle and slams into the boy, sending him flying into the air. (The teen “sustained minor injuries,” according to the police.) Subsequent footage shows an officer shooing other people away, a cop putting handcuffs on the young man—who was screaming “I’m sorry” over and over—and bystanders shouting loudly at the police.

According to media reports, it took several minutes for medical help to arrive, because the police were busy cuffing the boy and holding back bystanders, who were angry and also wanted to check on the kid’s condition.

The release of the video was to show “transparency” on the part of police, but it is accompanied by official notice that the investigation is complete, along with official explanations for what happened. “Clearly, this collision could have been tragic,” said Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn in an official written statement.

I am grateful the young man was not more seriously injured and that no one else was injured. Our training is designed to prevent this sort of thing from happening. We are going to make sure our training—and the officer’s adherence to that training—is as solid as it can be.

Meanwhile, some media are quoting without question the police description of the crash as the result of the officer “understeering” and “losing control” of his vehicle, not a deliberate attempt to ram the boy as he ran away.

Let’s take this apart.

First, if this were a “safety stop”–if his riding without a light at night, or even on the sidewalk, were an unsafe condition worth stopping a patrol car to have a conversation about—they should have asked about the kid’s light. But they didn’t. That was just a pretext for the stop, the purpose of which appears to have been a warrant check.

They can’t stop a person just because they don’t like their looks, or because they think maybe they might find some drugs. But they can stop a person for not having a light on his bike because the California vehicle code clearly states that anyone riding a bike at night must have a light bright enough to be seen for 300 feet, including on the sidewalk.

What the Sacramento police have demonstrated is that they believe that, once someone has been stopped, they can question that person about anything they want.

If the stop were truly about safety, there was no reason for it to be confrontational—which it was from the outset.

The police justify their actions based on a reason they clearly weren’t very interested in, but they don’t seem to see that as a problem. And the media don’t question them about continuing to use those excuses.

This is one reason people push back against so-called “safety laws” like helmet laws—they can become an excuse for cops to pull over people that just want to be able to move about their neighborhoods with the same freedom expected by people who are not subject to profiling.

There’s a second point to be made, this one regarding the “understeering” claim. Media reports quoted the police on this point, and even briefly showed an image the police provided which purports to explain what “understeering” is and how it caused the crash. But it could be described much more simply: it is driving dangerously.

The officer was driving too fast. He couldn’t control the vehicle when he decided to make a sharp turn. Is that acceptable? Does that make it an “accident”?

Police are as subject as anyone else to adrenaline surges and bad judgment—and they, of anyone, should also understand how deadly speed can be.

But worse: if the crash happened because of “understeering”–that is, the car didn’t turn as sharply as the driver intended it to—then, judging by the videos, the driver must have been aiming to cut across the boy’s path as he ran along the sidewalk.

It was a matter of inches. Even if you accept that the officer had no intention of ramming the teen, his intention was pretty clearly to have the teen run into the car. Would that have been a better outcome?

For police public relations, well—maybe. But it could have been just as dangerous for the teen.

The Sacramento police are already having a really big PR problem lately, with the violent arrest of a young black man last year on a false charge of jaywalking and the police shooting of another young black man who was trying to get into his grandparent’s house earlier this year. This latest incident, even with all the excuses the police are throwing at it, will not help their cause.

In the end, the young man in question was charged with resisting arrest for trying to run away when the cops questioned him. The police had no other reason to detain him.

And, by the way, he is white, according to the police report. And that’s important, says Streetsblog L.A. writer Sahra Sulaiman, because it “points to the structural nature of oppressive policing – that it’s embedded within how communities are policed and is not just a product of individual cops’ biases.”

The incident illustrates “the extent to which the way enforcement and engagement is taught and rewarded encourages the abuse of these kinds of codes,” she adds. “When you add in individual biases to that mix, then you get a sense of what could have happened if that youth had been black.”

When something like this happens to people of color, the outraged public frequently wants to solve it by firing the problematic cop instead of looking at the way the entire system of policing supports an officer’s actions, she argues. This incident helps illustrate the extent to which it is the system that needs to be changed.

  • neroden

    So, the cop in the car committed reckless driving and also aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. The cops asking illegal questions committed several violations of the civil rights statutes. Etc. They’re all criminals.

    This is what needs to happen.
    (1) The names and photos of the perp cops who committed these crimes must be revealed.
    (2) These perp cops are subject to arrest. Depending on the jurisdiction, different officials have the power of arrest — in most jurisdictions, citizens’ arrests remain legal, but in nearly all jurisdictions, the mayor can arrest people personally. These cops then must be arrested and brought in.

    In the 19th century, the local militia would have done a citizens’ arrest and brought them in — that is actually what happened in the 19th century, and that is how our legal system is officallly structured.

    (3) If the perp cops resisted arrest violently or took out a gun to resist arrest, citizens have the right to shoot and kill them in self-defense. Again, in the 19th century, this happened, and the courts ruled that the shooting of the perp cops were justified homicides.

    The fact is that cops need to have NO SPECIAL PRIVILEGES. Zero, nada, none. If I can’t stop someone on the street, then the cops can’t.

    The only special powers should come from warrants issued by judges.

    What we can do right now is commission a grand jury to indict the perp cops for aggravated assault, harassment, etc. Any judge in the county can organize a grand jury. Again, the way our legal system is officially supposed to work, the grand jury is independent of the DA.

    Of course, the DA could also just prosecute the perp cops himself. If the DA does not do so, it means the DA is part of a corrupt conspiracy to cover up aggravated assault. He should be thrown out of office by a new DA, who can then prosecute him.

    Run a DA election campaign on the platform of throwing perp cops in prison. That’s what needs to happen.

  • Sean Hussey

    Here’s an idea to make everybody’s life easier.
    1. Officers have to state the reason for the stop before turning on their lights.
    2. Officers may only ask questions about the stated reason for the stop, unless the person brings up something else.

    Now the officer doesn’t have to worry about repercussions for doing their job and the people don’t have to worry about false pretense.

  • Lawyers one can afford and the lawyers the others get.

  • Stuart

    You’re arguing with one of RichLL’s accounts. He has a well-established history of arguing that racism (except against white people) doesn’t exist. This is for example someone who constantly claims that cyclists are overwhelmingly white, and that cyclists all break the law all the time—and yet showed up on a story about racial ticketing disparities for cyclist to suggest that probably black cyclists were responsible for most infractions.

    He’s heard all of this before, and deliberately chooses not to believe it. This thread will go nowhere.

  • Parque_Hundido

    [this comment has been edited for tiresome content]

  • I never said anything about it being a “right-wing conspiracy” at all. It’s a well-known fact that various laws have been written in a manner that targets blacks (e.g. crack vs. powder cocaine). Most of those laws also have little to do with the cities, but come from the states or even Feds.

  • Parque_Hundido

    [this comment has been edited for tiresome content]

  • Apparently not. Otherwise, the percentage of blacks found with contraband vs. the total stopped would be higher.

  • Parque_Hundido

    If it is all a vast right-wing conspiracy to frame blacks then why are the US cities with the most blacks also the ones with the most crime e.g. Detroit, St. Louis, Memphis etc?

  • Parque_Hundido

    I suspect the cops get pretty good at seeing the little signs of who is up to no good

  • No, it’s not coincidence, it’s by design.

  • Considering that there are more stops of black people than white relative to their proportion in society, it really only makes sense that more contraband is found on white people because that means the police probably already had a reasonable suspicion versus just hauling them through the wringer just because of their skin color.

  • Melanie Curry

    Moderator here. We have zero interest in letting the comments section here become a platform for bullying or divisiveness. If you have something relevant to add to the conversation, please do so. If not, your comments will be deleted.

  • sahra

    FBI stats detail arrests, not convictions, friend, and make no accommodation for the difference in the way black and white communities tend to be policed or for the differential treatment black and white suspects tend to receive upon apprehension.

    It is no surprise you feel that whites are being picked on. Which is why I’m afraid we’ll have to abandon this conversation here. Sad!

  • Parque_Hundido

    “Black folks are more than twice as likely to be stopped as whites”

    FBI statistics indicate that blacks commit crimes at 4 times the rate of whites, so if they only get stopped twice as much then it seems to me that it is whites who are being picked on.

    Oh and this kid was white so your cheap race card play fell flat

  • sahra

    Black folks are more than twice as likely to be stopped as whites, despite being such a small percentage of the population. But the whites who are stopped are twice as likely to be carrying some sort of contraband.

    Here, have a link to that data! https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/09/21/it-looks-like-rudy-giuliani-convinced-donald-trump-that-stop-and-frisk-actually-works/?utm_term=.7970e440fc9e Might as well get busy trolling them over there because you won’t have the same latitude to do what you did on Najari’s story here.

    All my best!

  • Parque_Hundido

    “police are far more likely to find contraband on white suspects ”

    There are far more whites so that’s not a surprise. On a per capita basis?

    Anyway this kid was white so the race card isn’t playable

  • sahra

    The cop asked “You’re not trippin’?” Not the kid.

    According to the police themselves, the reason for the stop was the missing front light – there was no probable cause. The youth fit no description of an active perpetrator.

    And as most statistics show, stopping and frisking people is not particularly effective…it mainly subjects folks of color to searches, something which is not particularly useful, given that police are far more likely to find contraband on white suspects deemed suspicious enough to search (but who are searched with far less frequency). The best way to prevent crime is to know your community and not treat everyone as a potential threat.

    And while it’s great that cops cut people off in the movies, it turns out that real life is not the movies and they sent a traumatized child to the hospital after slamming into him at nearly 30 miles an hour.

  • Parque_Hundido

    “What the Sacramento police have demonstrated is that they believe that, once someone has been stopped, they can question that person about anything they want.”

    Well yeah, they catch a lot of crooks that way e.g. finding drugs or weapons in a stopped vehicle or on a stopped person.

    Did they have probable cause? Maybe – the kid here did not do himself many favors with his “For reals…?” and “You’re not trippin’?” And running away was just plain dumb.

    Cops do you use cars to cut off the path of an escaping perp. It’s not just in the movies.

  • calwatch

    A car is just as dangerous as a loaded weapon. If an officer’s gun had discharged because it was improperly secured the officer would certainly be disciplined, and if it injured someone be charged with negligence. This is no different.

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