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.