SACRAMENTO – Following the recent police-involved shooting death of young father Stephon Clark, his family has retained the legal services of nationally active civil rights attorney Ben Crump.
Clark, was fired upon in his grandmother’s backyard at least 20 times by two officers who suspected him of breaking into cars in the area. He was hit by eight bullets, the majority of which struck him in the back. The Sacramento Police Department released video footage from the officers’ body camera, that shows them shoot Clark and saying that they believed he was aiming a gun at them. Police found a cellphone near the 22-year-old’s body, not a gun.
In the wake of the shooting and subsequent protests that have been held in Sacramento and beyond, the Sacramento OBSERVER sat down with Attorney Crump and asked him questions about the Clark shooting and how he plans to move forward with the case.
Q: Stephon Clark’s family has called for an independent autopsy. What are some of their concerns?
A: We hope the autopsy will tell us a complete demonstration of where every bullet entered and exited him.
Q: Clark’s grandmother, Sequita Thompson, has asked why officers didn’t use non-lethal measures when they came across him in her backyard. Is the family maintaining that he was innocent, that he was at the wrong place at the wrong time or that vandalising cars shouldn’t have ended with him dead?
A. The family is still in shock. They are completely filled with emotion. They don’t believe he was doing what the police are accusing him of doing, but they are reasonable enough to know that even if he was doing that, it did not warrant him being executed like that in his backyard.
Q. Some have pointed to Clark’s past criminal record, asking why/if he deserves so much attention. Your thoughts on that?
A. Number one, but by the grace of God, there go I, and everybody else. Nobody’s perfect and nobody for any of our mistakes or shortcomings should be executed. We have mass murderers and people who have gone on killing sprees, they don’t get killed by the police. The police don’t shoot them one time, so why is it that an unarmed Black man with a cell phone can be executed and then people say, because he wasn’t a perfect citizen we’re going to allow the police to do that. If we go down that path, it’s going to be a slippery slope and guess who they’re going to start killing first? We need to make sure that we remind everybody that America is a nation of laws. Even if you committed a crime you are not sentenced to the death penalty for any of the vandalism accusations that were made toward him.
Q. The Peace Officers’ Bill of Rights is often used as a defense when law enforcement shoot African Americans, where officers maintain they “feared for their lives” and therefore are justified in the shootings and as a result, they’re rarely charged or prosecuted. Is changing that Bill of Rights a part of your work, part of the “justice” you’re seeking for the Clark family?
A. Absolutely. That’s very important. There are different forms of justice. Justice for all of us is to try to make sure that tragedies like this are prevented. You have to change policies and procedures. You have to have implicit bias training, we have to talk about when officers should be able to pull his gun out when somebody’s simply accused of vandalism or tampering with cars. Is that something you employ deadly force on or the muting of microphones, that, of course, is something that we want to change as a result of this tragedy. Those are things that can have a greater impact on justice. The police bill of rights, re-examining that document, trying to see that police, when they use deadly force, are not given a pass or given advancement of what the issues are going to be so they can prepare their answers. That’s not fair. None of us get that as Americans, so why should the police be above the law. We have to look at all of these things.
Q. You’ve worked across the country on some of these police-involved shootings and you, and the community, have seen time and time again where officers are not charged. Are you optimistic that the outcome will be different in the Clark case, with the California Attorney General coming onboard to do an independent investigation?
A. I am cautiously optimistic, but I never get too optimistic because I see too many examplors. Whether it’s Ferguson, Missouri with Michael Brown, Staten Island, New York with Eric Gardner and today with Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Just because you have a state or federal independent investigation doesn’t mean it won’t yield the same results even when there’s overwhelming evidence that someone should be held accountable. All we are demanding is that an investigation be fair, and thorough, and impartial and transparent, so we can go review what they concluded. That’s very important. In civil matters, that’s one of the things that has been very, very helpful to these cases that I’ve done all across the country.
Q. Is the family officially filing a lawsuit against the Sacramento Police Department?
A. The family will definitely, definitely be looking at every legal remedy to get more justice for Stephon Clark and his children.
Q. How does the family feel about all of the protests that have been staged after Stephon’s death?
A. They’re following all the activity of the community and the protests because they believe they are the community. They’re very thankful that the community is standing up with them. Oftentimes things like this happen and they’re allowed to be swept under the rug because people didn’t stand up and try to speak out, but here they have clearly said they’re not going to be silent over the death of Stephon Clark. His grandmother and his family keep telling me over and over again, ‘We’re just happy that people don’t leave us by ourselves.’
Crump, 48, operates a firm, Ben Crump PLLC, out of Tallahassee, Florida and has previously taken on high profile cases, included seeking justice for Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager who, in August 2014, was shot and killed by a White officer in Ferguson, Missouri; Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old who, in November 2014, was shot by White officers while playing with a toy gun in a Cleveland, Ohio; and Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Black teen who was shot and killed in February 2012 by a self-proclaimed neighborhood watchman for being in the wrong neighborhood.
Editor’s note–Our conversation with Ben Crump came on the same day that Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry announced that no state charges would be filed against the White officers who in 2016, shot and killed Alton Sterling, an unarmed Black man who had been selling CDs outside a convenience store. AG Landry concluded that officers “acted in a reasonable and justifiable manner.”
By Genoa Barrow
OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer