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Black men 'never get the benefit of the doubt': Attorney Ben Crump on death of Stephon Clark

Attorney Ben Crump is representing Stephon Clark's family after the 22-year-old was killed by two Sacramento police officers on March 18.

The following is a transcription of ABC10 Frances Wang's interview with Attorney Ben Crump, who is representing Stephon Clark's family after the 22-year-old was killed by two Sacramento police officers on March 18.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The full interview is posted above.

Q: What made you want to reach out to [Stephon Clark’s] family and represent them?

A: Well actually, the family called me. And I was actually traveling when they called and my office, one of my paralegals said Attorney Crump, I think you should look at this matter. And I was saying vet it for me and let me know what it’s about. And then, she called me the next day and said Attorney Crump, you should really look at the video. I talked to his family and they would really like to talk with you. I looked at the video, you know, and just was shocked. Like all the rest of America, you’re shocked when you watch this video you watch a human being executed and you say, ‘for what? Why did they have to do what they did to him?’ It’s really like his grandmother Ms. Thompson asked, ‘why?’ You just don’t understand why you would do that to a human being.

Q: What is your interpretation of that [body cam and aerial] video when you watch it?

A: It’s hard to separate myself from being a civil rights lawyer and more importantly, from being a black parent. See, many people have the convenience of knowing that would never happen to their children, regardless of whatever the situation would be. But, we know all too often that young African Americans, young Hispanic people are unnecessarily, unjustifiably are killed even though they are completely unarmed. You know, I hate to have to keep pointing out the obvious but you have murderers, mass murderers who are non-African American, non-Hispanic, who are not only given the benefit of the doubt and not shot, but they’re offered courtesies like Dylan Roof who they took to Burger King to get some burger and some fries after he murdered nine of the most innocent people you could ever find in that church in South Carolina. So, why isn’t the same consideration given to Stephon Clark? Why couldn’t they set up a perimeter? They had a helicopter overhead. They could track him, but they chose I mean, within seconds, made the decision that they were going to take him down.

Q: How strong of a case do you think you have? A lot of people [are wondering] why was [Stephon Clark] seemingly running? Or if he was the suspect that police believed was breaking windows, does that matter?

A: I think that people murder people. People kill multiple people and they still didn’t get their response from law enforcement that young black men get for having cell phones. They never get the benefit of the doubt. The benefit of consideration, the benefit of possibility that maybe we should try a less restrictive measure other than lethal force. And so that’s the question this community has to answer. Because there are certain people in this community who are fed up. They’re saying enough is enough. You know the statistics bear out that since 2015, there have been 73 individuals killed by police who were unarmed. Over 70 of them, as high as 72 of them, were African American. I think two of them were biracial. Those are the statistics. You have to ask yourself: Why is that happening? I will say this: I don’t know yet but we’re going to certainly research the issue. In Sacramento, we believe in the last two years, there have been also police-involved fatalities. And I believe it’s six, and I believe five of those were black men. So, do you mean to tell me even though African Americans are the minority in Sacramento, that every time the police use lethal force to kill somebody, that it’s - I don’t even know the statistic – 92 percent black people? So, you’re telling us no white people are committing crimes, where the police feel that they need to use lethal force? I mean this becomes very, very important questions to ask. When you just look at the data, so either one of two things are going on. Either the police aren’t well trained to interact with minorities - we need more implicit bias training - or they value black life less than they value other lives because they’re so quick to take lethal force in any kind of interaction.

Q: One of the officers [involved in the fatal shooting] is black. What do you make of that?

A: That there still is a lack of training with implicit bias, that you’re more prone, you’re quicker to use lethal force when the suspect is black or Hispanic regardless if the police officer is black or white. And these are the statistics not just in Sacramento, but all over America. Really, the ethnicity of the police officer does not weigh as heavy as the ethnicity of the victim who has been killed by the police. Because that’s the number we see is consistent regardless of it’s a white, black, Asian, Hispanic officer. The people they’re inclined to shoot are young black and brown people, not white young people.

Q: There was a moment shortly after they fired 20 shots [in the body cam video], they said they need backup, mentioned bringing in non-lethal weapons. But that was after they already fired their guns. What do you make of that?

A: I think again, they’re so, I guess, trained. Well, I take that back. There is a lack of training when it comes to what to do in a situation, regardless of if the individual is black, Hispanic or white. What we see all too often is they show restraint when it’s a young white person versus when it’s a young black person and that is an issue that is really critical to people in communities of color. Because we pray every day that our children won’t be killed by the people who are supposed to protect and serve them. It is a real fear for us and many people outside communities of color can’t even fathom that thought, that the police would actually kill their children. So, hopefully, we can learn from this tragedy and try to heal not only the Clark family with giving them justice, but also try to heal this community, knowing that they’re going to do better with using less restrictive means of force to interact with people. There are so many things they could’ve done differently that night. I mean, the experts who we’re talking to who are trained police veterans can count - just on mere observation of the video - a dozen things that were done wrong, that they did not have to do. They could’ve set up perimeters, they could’ve made sure the helicopter put the spotlight on, they could’ve used less restrictive measures versus a gun. I mean it’s so many. They say no no no, now you’re just Monday morning quarterbacking. No, you’re not. You’re applying policies saying what other things could’ve been done other than executing this young man who you knew nothing about in his backyard. What else could’ve been done to give him a chance to live out the fulfillment of his destiny that his family prayed for?

Q: [Stephon Clark’s] family has said that the backyard window was used to communicate with family members inside the home. They believe he was just trying to get home and was not the suspect vandalizing cars. Is that correct?

A: The family doesn’t believe anything the Sacramento Police Department is saying at all, about what he was doing, about any of this. Because remember, they were told the next day the reason they had to shoot 20 times, killing him was that he had a gun. Well then, they walked that back, it turned out he didn’t have a gun. Then they were told a tool bar, a crow bar. Then had to walk that back because it turned out he only had a cellphone. Finally, they had to come clean and say he was unarmed. And then, when we watch the video, we see that he wasn’t threatening the police officers. He was trying to get away from the police officers. The police officers never identified themselves, they never gave him a warning. You know, it’s 17 seconds from when they first interacted with him until you hear those bullets. We’ll explore all of those things in great detail as we continue forward with legal matters. But the one thing we know for certain, the courts have said that running from police does not give police the right to use lethal force, especially as it relates to minorities who are often fearful of police. They do the statistics with young minorities and they say, young white people - when they see police - they believe it’s their friend. They run to them. That’s a different experience for many minorities and we really have to work on that, not just in Sacramento but all over America -- why young people fear that police will kill me versus help me.

Q: Another big question everyone has is towards the end of the video, it sounds like an officer says, ‘Hey, mute?’ Then you hear the audio go out for the last few minutes. From a legal perspective, what do you make of that?

A: Well certainly, the citizens’ review board have contacted the family about their concern about the inappropriateness of the muting of the audio – well, it just seems nefarious, seems very suspicious that they’re trying to conspire to seem deceitful at that point. We have to look carefully at the policies and procedures of course, but from a reasonable man’s standards, it sounds like they realized they had made some mistakes and they did not want to communicate how they cover up the mistakes. We’ll get into that. We’ll have to vet that out.

Q: There are a lot of things we still don’t know. As the family’s attorney, what are the biggest questions for you that you are waiting on answers for?

A: Certainly, right now we’re going to have an independent autopsy. The family wants to know - as any family would want to know - how many times was he shot and they keep asking that question. The other question the family has asked me is why didn’t [police] knock on their front door? On the other videos, they knocked on other people’s doors, saying we’re going to go into the backyard. They have a helicopter overhead. They could’ve tracked him. Why didn’t they knock on the door and say there’s somebody in your backyard? We want to check it out, and so we just want to alert you. Because the family believes had that been done, this all would have been prevented. And there are just thousands of questions the family has as you would imagine. His grandmother has to sleep in the bed every night, less than three feet away from where her grandson was executed. And that, to me, Frances, that is the most just terrible thing about all of this. When you hear Ms. Thompson say that they called 911 when they heard the shots, her husband Mr. Thompson. Then the police told them when they were all outside that night stay in your house, don’t come in your house, don’t look in the backyard, there was a shooting in the backyard. They followed the police instructions. The next morning, the police knock on the door and they ask her ‘can we see a picture of your grandson?’ And she says ‘Yes, I hope y’all didn’t shoot one of my grandboys because that’s how they enter the house, through the back way by knocking on the window. And lo and behold that’s indeed what they did --- killed one of her grandchildren. And so, it’s just difficult for her now. She’s thinking, is there anything we could’ve done? Is there anything more we could’ve done? They had just seen him about three and a half hours before this. He left the house around 6 p.m. He was happy. He was normal. They never thought that was going to be the last time they saw Stephon Clark alive.

Q: In an earlier interview with his grandmother, she was angry and in disbelief. If you saw her today at the press conference, it looked like she has come to terms with what happened and is inconsolable.

A: It certainly is a stage by stage they have to go through to try to heal. Certainly, receiving the body at the funeral home was something difficult [that happened earlier today before the press conference]. Obviously, haven’t selected the clothes that they’re going to put on him for the homegoing services. It’s just extremely emotional, you just really believe your children are going to bury you, your grandchildren are going to bury you. Not you burying your grandchildren. Let that sink in for a moment to the people of Sacramento that they’re having to bury their child and he was unarmed. That never should’ve happened. It’s just so unnatural on so many levels. They don’t even have a word to define burying your children. When you lose a spouse, you’re a window. When children bury you. They’re orphans. There’s no word to describe a parent who has lost a child, especially in this senseless unnecessary way.

Q: Sacramento has its first black police chief, who is relatively new. A lot of people are commending him for releasing the video footage so early. What are your thoughts, based on the other families you’ve represented in different areas, in how our police chief is responding?

A: I think really the whole issue is about trust. There is a great distrust between communities of color and law enforcement. I think the way you heal that issue you have transparency no. 1, accountability no. 2. And that’s how you get to trust. I commend the city leaders and the police leaders for attempting to be transparent. That’s only one part of the equation. You also have to hold people accountable because we want there to be a deterrent from this happening again to young people in our community. We want police to at least try to show restraint when it comes to our children. When it comes to black lives, it seems to be: shoot first, ask questions later. Now, we want our children to come home too.

Q: Well part two, accountability. Let’s talk about the steps moving forward. What does the timeline look in terms of the legal process?

A: Well, the family is prepared to exercise every legal option available to them to get justice for Stephon Clark and his children and his family. So, we certainly we will be moving forward with legal action, something they can control. They can’t control anything that happens in the way of accountability for these officers. Only our elected officials can do that. They have to refer to a grand jury, likely a District Attorney. What is he going to say in that secret grand jury proceeding? All we know from the lessons from Ferguson, Missouri, with Michael Brown and Eric Garner, is what happens in that grand jury is just a mystery to all. You can see stuff on video yet they go back, come back and they say there was nothing the officers did was wrong. It’s just very suspicious to many minorities that grand juries always find probable cause to charge us with crimes. But it’s very rare when we’re the victims and the police are the people responsible for brutalizing us and killing us - that they’re ever found to have probable cause to actually charge them with a crime. So that is an issue we have to deal with.

Q: At the protests, there have been instances of people throwing liquid or breaking car windows. What is your message or the family’s message to keep things peaceful?

A: The family of Stephon Clark is very appreciative of all the protests, people standing up for justice especially the young people. They have been very responsible in their expression of their first amendment rights. We continue to pray that they will do so in a peaceful way, especially as we observe next week the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who always stood for non-violence. Violence is never ever the answer.

Follow the conversation with Frances Wang on Facebook and twitter.

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