Sacramento police shot Stephon Clark 7 times from behind
Stephon Clark, the unarmed black man who was fatally shot last week by Sacramento police officers, was struck eight times, mostly in his back, according to an independent autopsy released Friday, raising significant questions about the police account that he was a threat to officers when he was hit.
The autopsy — commissioned by the family of Clark, 22, and conducted by Dr. Bennet Omalu, a private medical examiner — showed that he was shot three times in his lower back, twice near his right shoulder, once in his neck and once under an armpit. He was also shot in the leg. The neck wound was from the side, the doctor found, and he said that although the shot to the leg hit Clark in the front, it appeared to have been fired after he was already falling.
“He was shot from the back,” Omalu said Friday at a news conference. Standing next to diagrams of the findings, he said that seven of the shots could have had a “fatal capacity.” He described severe damage to Clark’s body, including a shattered vertebrae, a collapsed lung, and an arm broken into “tiny bits.”
“He bled massively,” Omalu said.
He said he believed the first bullet to hit Clark on his side caused him to turn, so he was facing away from the officers when they fired the barrage of bullets.
Sacramento police on Friday said they had not viewed the autopsy and declined to comment, saying it was “inappropriate” because the investigation was continuing. “We acknowledge the importance of this case to all in our community,” police said in a statement.
Protesters in California’s capital have taken to the streets nearly every day since Clark was killed on March 18, demanding that the city’s leadership fire the two officers involved.
Clark’s family have accused the Police Department of trying to cover up misconduct by its officers and decided to conduct its own autopsy.
Video showed officers shouting at Clark minutes after the shooting stopped. “We need to know if you’re OK,” an officer yelled about three minutes after the gunfire ended. “We need to get you medics but we can’t go over to get you help unless we know you don’t have a weapon.”
Omalu said the autopsy suggested that Clark lived for three to 10 minutes after the shooting, adding to questions about the amount of time it took to get him treatment. Medical assistance did not arrive until about six minutes after the shooting.
In its initial account, the Police Department said Clark had “advanced toward the officers” while holding what they believed to be a firearm. In body camera footage provided by police, however, it is not clear which direction Clark is facing, and the family’s lawyer, Benjamin Crump, said the independent autopsy contradicted the assertion by police that he was a threat.
Crump said the results proved that Clark could not have been moving toward the officers in a threatening fashion when they opened fire.
“These findings from the independent autopsy contradict the police narrative that we’ve been told,” he said. “This independent autopsy affirms that Stephon was not a threat to police and was slain in another senseless police killing under increasingly questionable circumstances.”
Outside experts who have examined the case say it will be difficult to determine whether the officers could be held criminally accountable. The Supreme Court has sided with police in fatal shootings if it is shown that officers reasonably believe their lives were in danger.
Justin Nix, who teaches policing at the University of Nebraska Omaha, said, “Any police shooting on camera is going to look bad. But when the guy is on his stomach and they continue to shoot, a lot of people are going to be bothered by it.”
Nix agreed the autopsy undercut the police’s version of events, but said: “He’s facing slightly in their direction. And it is possible they felt he was still reaching for what they thought was a gun.”
David A. Harris, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law who studies police accountability, said the officers were at a disadvantage because they were relying on information about the suspect from a police helicopter circling overhead.
Once they confront the suspect, however, the officers order Clark to “show” his hands, rather than raise his hands, which Clark may have been doing when he was shot, Harris said.
But he said that if the officers perceived that Clark was armed and moving toward them, they are trained to shoot. “It is not clear they could have done anything differently,” he said.
Though troublesome, the shots to Clark’s back were “not enough by itself to seal a negative judgment,” he said. In part because, “the victim’s body may have turned after the shooting began, and it is still unclear whether they could see that he had turned.”
Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn requested assistance from the California Department of Justice earlier this week, headed by Attorney General Xavier Becerra, to join the department’s investigation as an independent party. Hahn said he hoped that step would reassure residents that the investigation would be impartial.
The episode began when two officers were dispatched to the Meadowview neighborhood in South Sacramento to investigate a report that someone was breaking car windows. A county sheriff’s department helicopter joined the search and hovered above, at one point telling officers that a suspect had picked up a crowbar.
The officers eventually spotted Clark, who appears to have run from them into his grandmother’s backyard. In body camera video, an officer is heard shouting the word “gun” repeatedly and opening fire almost immediately. No weapon was found on Clark’s body; the only object found was his cellphone.
After other officers arrived, the two officers involved in the shooting muted the audio on their body cameras as they discussed what had happened, which has also drawn criticism.
At his funeral Thursday, hundreds of mourners gathered, including the Rev. Al Sharpton and others from the Blacks Lives Matter movement. Clark’s brother, Stevante, pleaded with supporters not to forget his brother. Protests over the shooting were planned Saturday.
Omalu is widely credited for having discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, irreversible brain damage caused by repeated blows to the head, which has been linked to playing football. His battle with the National Football League was depicted in the 2015 film, “Concussion.” Until late last year, he was the chief medical examiner of San Joaquin County, California, but quit after accusing the sheriff of meddling in cases involving police-custody deaths.
He said that he could not determine if Clark would have survived if he had received medical attention more quickly, but “every minute you wait decreases probability of survival.”
Crump said he was expecting authorities to push back on the findings of the autopsy.