The August 11th shooting of mentally ill black man Ezell Ford by LAPD officers has led local civil rights figures to speak out about the use of deadly force against the unarmed 25-year-old. The results of the autopsy are now public, raising more questions about the tactics employed by officers that day.
The autopsy reveals Ford was shot three times — once in the right side, once in the back and once in the right arm. The shots to his back and right side are what ultimately led to his death. Additionally, a “muzzle imprint” on Fords back appears to indicate that Ford was shot from behind at a relatively close range.
The two policemen involved allege that Ford tackled one of them during a routine stop, and attempted to grab one officer’s gun. That officer claims he then called out to his partner, who shot Ford in the back. The downed officer then pulled his back-up weapon and fired. The LA Times reports that no witnesses have spoken to police, and now civil rights activist Earl Ofari Hutchinson is now calling upon L.A. County District Attorney Jackie Lacey to explore the possibility of filing charges against the policemen responsible for the death of Ezell Ford.
Does your opinion of the incident change now with the release of the autopsy?
Shortly following the shooting, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti ordered the release of the results by the end of the year. Do you feel more confident that the investigation will be impartial?
AirTalk guest host Patt Morrison was joined by civil rights attorney Connie Rice and attorney and former cop Harry Stern to discuss. (The transcript below has been edited for brevity.)
MORRISON: What did you read into the findings? Do you think they’re consistent with the police account or is there still more investigation to be done?
RICE: Well, I don’t see anything earth shattering here. It’s consistent with what we’ve heard before, and it’s what we expected to find. I guess the thing that I’m more interested in is why did they stop him in the first place?
For me, the question is always: was this encounter truly necessary? And did police have enough cause to stop him in the first place?
MORRISON: And that of course isn’t explored by any of this?
RICE: Exactly. That’s the question, because if the police had no business stopping him anyhow, then you’ve got a very different kind of inquiry. The investigation looks entirely different.
If they had a good reason to stop him and things got out of hand and he panicked and did something to cause them to defend themselves, well you know how that story goes.
But if they had no reason to be in contact with him, then the question is: was this at all, was any of this necessary? And the answer might be no.
MORRISON: Harry Stern joins us as well, an attorney at the law firm Rains, Lucia, Stern based in San Francisco. He’s a former police officer. In your reading and understanding of this, are the findings consistent with what the police officer's account was?
STERN: They are, and I think naturally the public’s going to have questions and maybe even concerns about a shot in the back, that doesn’t sound good.
However, in this context, when you’re talking about an officer who goes to their backup weapon, which is a very unusual circumstance, really a last resort, it is consistent with what the officers said and that is that the officer on the ground was struggling for his duty weapon, the weapon in his holster. The fact that that officer then went to his backup weapon, the weapon of last resort, and fired it, seems to confirm what their account of events was.
MORRISON: Can you speak to the concerns in African American communities that something that may be nothing triggers a great deal?
RICE: Well, yes I know. My brothers, my mother and I were very, very worried about my brothers, who are African American men. And every Air Force base we moved to, my mother would take her sons to the air police and say these are my sons; don’t kill them.
MORRISON: Even if this shooting is found to be in policy, do you agree that it’s likely that it will raise some of the larger questions about why this stop was initiated in the first place and the procedures for dealing with the mentally ill?
STERN: Well to answer the first part of your question, absolutely. I mean that’s an ongoing debate and discussion in light of everything that’s been going on within the last six months in the country.
And I look at it like this: there is a tension that’s developed between what I call “proactive police work” and “reactive police work.”
On one side of the coin is de-policing, where the police really respond — no offense, but — like firefighters. They wait in their station to be called and only respond to things after the fact.
The other way to do police work is proactively; to stop people within the confines of the Constitution, which gives officers wide latitude in doing investigative stops and trying to identify crime and criminals before other people are victimized.
So that’s really the tension as I see it, where the debate is.
MORRISON: And Connie Rice, in that debate there is an awful lot of latitude not only as a policy but in terms of how it's practiced on the street.
RICE: Absolutely. I’ll tell you there are units within LAPD that I think do this job beautifully. They don't make unnecessary stops. They know folks in the community. They know everybody’s name. They know everybody’s problems. They know who has a mental illness, and they know who is schizophrenic. So when they go out, when these cops go out, they really are part of the community, and they don't make unnecessary stops. And they really are only after stopping people to stop real crime, not small petty stuff, but stuff that has a chance of endangering other people. And those cops do a really, really good job Pat.
Now, my question, and I don't know this unit... I don't know these cops personally. I have nothing to say about them. But you do have to ask the question: What are they doing stopping a citizen? Police can't just stop you because they think you look funny or because they have a whim and a prayer. They have to have a good solid reason and good cause for stopping you.
And that's where I start my inquiry, is why did they stop the guy in the first place? And what were they trying to accomplish?
It's tricky work. It's a tricky inquiry, but I think you do have to make it in order to be able to get the full picture here of what was going on.
Connie Rice, Civil rights attorney and member of the Board of Directors at the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization. She’s also an honorary trustee at KPCC.
Harry Stern, attorney at the law firm Rains, Lucia, Stern based in San Francisco. He’s a former police officer.
This post has been updated.