An independent autopsy commissioned by a lawyer may seem like a publicity stunt to those who seemingly have no problem with an unarmed man being gunned down by Sacramento Police. The autopsy, revealed Friday, found that Stephon Clark was shot repeatedly in the back on March 18. Beyond that is this undeniable truth:
The Coroner of Sacramento County, the District Attorney of Sacramento County, Sacramento Police, Sacramento Sheriffs – the entire local law enforcement community – had it coming. Here was a lawyer for one family who refused to wait six months, eight months, a year, 14 months or longer until they, the local authorities, released "official" findings after a fatal police shooting.
Putting aside technical debates over the methodology of Clark's autopsy, performed by Bennet Omalu, the former chief medical examiner for San Joaquin County, the explosive findings made public at a Friday news conference conveyed a clear statement to local law enforcement authorities: We don't trust you.
If Sacramento is a microcosm of a national dispute over whether law enforcement officials essentially can investigate their own, then officials here give weight to the conclusion, no, they can't. They have truly earned the heat they are catching right now.
For years, fatal shootings committed by local law enforcement followed a familiar pattern: An African American man is killed, there is public outrage, the official investigations drag on for months if not longer, everybody waits for everybody else's report to be completed, and the findings become public long after the original incident.
Some people think, not unreasonably, that this is deliberate. They speculate: The length of time in releasing official reports is so all the players can get their stories straight. At least, that's how it looks to a skeptical public.
The autopsy commissioned by Benjamin Crump, the Clark family lawyer, is a direct challenge to the hammerlock local authorities have on the flow of information related to the investigations of officer involved shootings.
Defense attorneys usually do not take this step because autopsies are very expensive. But by contracting with Omalu – who gained national attention as the doctor who helped shed new light on the destructive effects of concussions in the NFL – Crump has done something the authorities never do.
He gained access to and released explosive forensic information on a controversial police shooting while public interest and anger over the case was still scalding hot. Stephon Clark is now a national symbol of police brutality. On Friday, the NBA great Bill Russell took to Twitter and expressed solidarity with Clark's family by ending his tweet with #StephonClark.
Along with the suspicion that cultural biases within police departments are a factor in the fatal shootings of black men nationwide, questions loom as to whether other law enforcement agencies can act as dispassionate investigators of cops who kill.
In Sacramento, the cozy relationship between District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert and cops can be found in her campaign contributions. First elected in 2014, and up for re-election in June, Schubert has banked $85,000 in contributions from law enforcement agencies in the last three years.
Those contributions include $22,500 from the California Statewide Law Enforcement Association, and $6,500 from the Sacramento Police Officers Association. But her biggest law enforcement contributor has been the Sacramento County Deputy Sheriff's Association, which has contributed $33,000 to her coffers.
Is Schubert corrupt? No. In many respects, she has been a fine DA for Sacramento County. She's a good person. She cares about her community. But on police-involved shootings, her office has gone out of its way to be apologists for cops who have killed on the job. Her office took six months to announce that it would not prosecute the Sacramento city cops who killed Joseph Mann in July 2016 in north Sacramento. Before shooting him to death, two officers tried to run Mann down with their police cruiser.
Federal case law gives cops wide latitude to use deadly force on the job, but Schubert's office went to great lengths to justify the actions of John Tennis and his partner, Randy Lozoya, in the Mann shooting. “Like many Sacramentans who saw the video, I question the conclusion by the DA that police acted within reason in the shooting and killing of Joseph Mann,” Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, told The Bee after they were cleared. “For far too long, there has been distrust surrounding police shootings and the decisions by local DAs that work closely with police officers.”
Combined with other egregious cases in other cities, a culture of mistrust toward authorities on police shootings had already taken root by the time Clark was killed. What we have learned since then – he was unarmed, he was in his grandmother's backyard, he was only carrying a cellphone, he was shot in the back – has only exacerbated the feeling local officials can't honestly investigate local cops.
State Attorney General Xavier Becerra will look at certain aspects of the Clark case, but his office should do more. It should take over all police-involved shootings and bring a level of independence to these investigations.
This is not needed because people hate the police or law enforcement. Or that they are inherently corrupt. But they are all friends and colleagues. They work together and support each other emotionally and financially. People are not wrong for calling out and mistrusting such conflicts of interests after a 22-year-old unarmed man loses his life in a horrendous shooting.