Twenty-two year old Stephon Clark was the most recent victim of our nationwide epidemic of police shootings of unarmed suspects. Stephon was killed by two Sacramento police officers in his Grandmother’s backyard after police received a report of a prowler breaking car windows in the neighborhood. Stephon’s execution is the latest in a series of high-profile police killings of unarmed black men in recent years. Nationwide statistics on police shootings of unarmed suspects indicate that death by police is a fate reserved mostly for young black males.
Stephon’s Family Had an Independent Autopsy Performed to Determine Cause of Death
According to Dr. Bennet Omalu, the leading forensic pathologist who was hired by Stephon Clark’s family, the autopsy revealed he was shot eight times, with most of the shots in the back. Seven of the eight bullet wounds Stephon suffered were potentially deadly.
The independent autopsy report indicated Stephon could possibly have lived if he had received medical assistance sooner. The autopsy showed Stephon was still alive from 3-10 minutes after he was shot, yet officers did not render assistance until at least five minutes after the shooting. The police officers involved handcuffed him as he lay on the ground before rendering any assistance.
Police Officers Who Killed Stephon Clark Said They Believed He Posed an Imminent Threat
According to the Official Police Version of circumstances which led to Stephon Clark’s execution, the officers involved believed Clark posed an imminent threat to their safety and that he was wielding a deadly weapon. The Sacramento Police changed their story a couple of times in the days that followed the killing, first saying they thought he had a gun, then saying they thought he was holding a “toolbar.”
The body cam/ helicoptor video footage shows him still several yards away as they yelled “Show me your hands, gun!” He began to walk towards them slow, took only a few unhurried steps in their direction. There was nothing threatening in his movements, he didn’t raise his hands to aim a gun; even if he had been holding a different weapon he was too far away to use it and moving slow when they opened fire, almost simultaneously with shouting “Show me your hands! Gun gun gun!”
Stephon Clark, a young, unarmed black man, shot in the back seven times, with most of the shots fired after he was already down, first crumpling to his hands and knees, and then crawling forward as they continue to fire, finally collapsing and dying face down on the ground. The object Stephon was holding in his hand when police opened fire was likely the cell phone found near his lifeless body.
When Is It Legal For Police to Use Deadly Force?
The Code of Federal Regulations states that deadly force may be used by police in circumstances where a reasonable person
- Believes his/her life is in imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm
- To protect others who are so endangered
- To prevent escape of a person who poses a significant threat of death or serious bodily harm to the police or others unless apprehended immediately
- Other situations where nuclear weapons/explosives are involved
How Many Times are Police Trained to Shoot Once They Open Fire on a Suspect?
In a New Orleans Times Picayune article on the topic of police shootings, FBI Special Agent John Huber stated that police are trained to shoot until a suspect stops moving. Huber said that police are not trained to use expert aim, but to shoot for the torso and to continue to shoot until the suspect is no longer able to pose a potential threat.
There’s only one valid legal question to ask in this scenario: Would a reasonable police officer believe that Stephon Clark posed a threat of imminent death or serious bodily harm to the officers involved or anyone else? Even if a suspect is holding a gun, it’s only a threat if the suspect is pointing that gun at somebody.
If, as Sacramento police claimed, Stephon was holding a “toolbar” it wouldn’t be a threat to police because he was too far away to use it against them. He wasn’t approaching the officers in a threatening way; they asked him to show them his hands, and he was holding a cellphone, which they claim to have mistaken for a deadly weapon when they opened fire. If you cannot see clearly enough to distinguish a cell from a gun or “toolbar” at a short distance you need glasses.
In many cases, police shootings of unarmed people occur because the victim won’t obey the police commands fast enough. This could happen for many reasons, including because
- The victim is scared
- The victim is disoriented or confused
- The victim is mentally ill
- The victim is under the influence of a substance such as alcohol or another drug
The only valid reason for a cop to shoot somebody down is if that person poses an imminent threat of bodily harm to the shooter or another person and shooting is the only viable option to neutralize the danger. Refusing to obey or fleeing from police is not a justifiable cause for use of deadly force.
Filing a Federal Lawsuit Is Likely the Only Path to Justice for Stephon Clark
Police are rarely charged with a crime after shooting an unarmed suspect. No matter how outrageous their claim is that they were in fear for their safety and/or the safety of others, the courts will give a killer cop the benefit of the doubt. While police do face real dangers on the job, their job is to protect and defend the people in their community, not to act as judges and executioners or to shoot first and ask questions later.
After viewing the body cam and helicopter video footage, it is stretching credibility to concede that the officers who killed Stephon Clark felt they were in imminent danger. At worst, they may have felt they were in danger of being in danger, which is part of the job description of being a cop. And yet, going by our history of police use of force, it’s highly unlikely the two Sacramento police officers who shot and killed Stephon Clark will face criminal charges and if they are charged they probably won’t be convicted.
In those infrequent cases where a cop faces some kind of criminal charge after shooting an unarmed black suspect, the cop is usually acquitted of wrongdoing as a recent New York Times table shows. The NYT table shows that out of 15 cases where a police officer faced charges related to African American shot by police only two cops were convicted and one went to prison.
In most of the above cases a settlement was reached with the city involved; you can read more about each settlement in the NYT table. Ideally, the police officer who used unjustifiable lethal force and killed somebody would also face criminal charges. However, this is rare: as the above table indicates, out of 15 cases which caused public outrage nationwide only eight cops faced criminal charges, with one conviction, one guilty plea, and one still facing trial. In five of these high-profile cases the officer involved was acquitted of wrongdoing for killing an unarmed black person.
New Police Use of Force Legislation is Being Introduced to Stop the Killings in California
California legislators are introducing a bill, The Police Accountability and Community Protection Act. This is an attempt to make it harder for police to escape prosecution for killing people. The bill will make it a crime for a cop to shoot down a suspect without using every means possible to de-escalate the situation first, and classify police shootings where gross negligence on the part of the peace officer led to the shooting as unjustifiable.
Another step which must be taken is more police training in
- De-escalation of potentially dangerous encounters
- Less lethal techniques for apprehending and subduing a suspect
- Subconscious racial profiling
- What circumstances pose a real threat to safety
Hopefully, with police facing more rigorous standards for accountability after resorting to lethal force, the new bill will force California police departments to give equal priority to training police in suspect safety as they do to training in police in their own safety.
California Civil Rights Attorney Cameron Sehat
Hello, my name is Cameron Sehat. At the Sehat Law Firm we are grieved by Stephon Clark’s tragic death. When somebody is brutally killed by police the tragedy is ongoing. Family and friends are forced to go forward for the remainder of their lives emotionally crippled by grief and anger over the injustice and senselessness of their loved one’s death. They are robbed of the companionship, love and daily presence of their beloved family member or friend and this is an injury that never heals.
It is my life’s work to seek justice for people whose Civil Rights are violated by police and others in authority. We see people’s rights violated by police, prison guards and others who are supposed to be public servants on a regular basis. This unlawful and frightening abuse of power must stop.
If you believe that your Civil Rights or the rights of somebody you love have been violated by a police officer or another public servant, please contact the Sehat Law Firm without delay. We will be most happy to help you to demand justice. Together we can defend our Constitution and seek decency and accountability from those in power.
Visit here for more information on police shooting.