LOS ANGELES — The lawyer for the family of Ezell Ford, the 25-year-old unarmed black man with mental illness who was fatally shot by a police officer last week, told The Huffington Post on Wednesday that the fatal shooting by the LAPD was “an execution.”
“I’m convinced due to the results of my initial investigation that this is not a justifiable homicide, this is in fact an execution,” attorney Steven Lerman said in an interview.
Lerman, who also represented Rodney King — the man whose videotaped beating by Los Angeles Police Department officers following a high-speed care chase in 1991 sparked national outrage — says he is hiring a private pathologist who will conduct a non-forensic, independent autopsy. He’s also bringing on board a ballistics expert and anatomist, both of which will help present a picture of what happened the evening of Aug. 11 between officers and Ford, based on the types of wounds found on Ford’s body.
The performance of a private autopsy mimics actions that followed the fatal shooting of unarmed black 18-year-old Michael Brown by white Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson. Three autopsies have already been performed on Brown — one private, one federal and one by St. Louis County. While the results of the federal autopsy are pending, the other two revealed that Brown had been fatally shot at least six times.
More than a week after Ford’s death, tensions are high in the South LA community where he was killed by veteran anti-gang police officers after what the force described as an “investigative stop.”
“It is unknown if the suspect has any gang affiliations,” the LAPD said in a statement after the killing. However, many people in Ford’s neighborhood told HuffPost that the young man was not remotely involved in gang activity.
Lerman had announced plans to “immediately” file a federal civil rights lawsuit against the LAPD over Ford’s death, but Wednesday he declined to state exactly when he would take action.
The police have launched an investigation into the incident, but have put an “investigative hold” on the coroner’s office autopsy report to prevent witness testimony from being tainted.
Ed Winter, the assistant chief of investigation at the coroner’s office, told The Huffington Post that he didn’t know how long the hold would last.
The security hold on the autopsy report is common in cases that are ongoing, LAPD Cmdr. Andrew Smith told Southern California public radio station KPCC. However, some saw the move as controversial.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the civil rights community forum Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, questioned the LAPD’s decision.
“The blocking of the release [of the] Ford autopsy report further fuels suspicions about the LAPD’s version of the Ford killing,” Hutchinson said late Tuesday.
Lerman also cast doubt on the reasons the LAPD stated for withholding the autopsy results, telling HuffPost that he believes the police have delayed the report’s release for “political reasons.”
Because of the ongoing investigation of the shooting, the LAPD could not comment on Lerman’s allegations.
“The whole incident is under review,” Officer Sally Madera told HuffPost. “The Force Investigative Division and Robbery Homicide Division are closely assessing the incident.”
Much like the Brown case in Missouri, police and eyewitness versions of what actually took place shortly after 8:10 p.m. on Aug. 11 in the Florence neighborhood of South LA vary wildly.
The police say that during an “investigative stop,” a struggle ensued in which Ford “turned, grabbed one of the officers.” After that, “they fell to the ground” and Ford attempted to grab one of the officer’s handguns from its holster. The “partner officer then fired his handgun and the officer on the ground fired his backup weapon” at Ford.
But eyewitnesses, neighbors and family members dispute the police department’s story. An eyewitness told KTLA that Ford’s mental state was well-known in the neighborhood and by the police.
“They laid him out and for whatever reason, they shot him in the back, knowing mentally, he has complications. Every officer in this area, from the Newton Division, knows that — that this child has mental problems,” the man said in an interview with the local TV station. “The excessive force … there was no purpose for it. The multiple shootings in the back while he’s laying down? No. Then when the mom comes, they don’t try to console her … they pull the billy clubs out.”
An eyewitness told HuffPost that he heard a police officer shout “shoot him” before three bullets were unloaded into an unarmed Ezell, who was already on the ground. And a neighbor claimed “racial bullshit” was at the heart of what happened on that street.
Ford’s mother, Tritobia Ford, told HuffPost on Friday that her son showed signs of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
The growing schism between the public and police over the events that left Ford dead was highlighted Tuesday in a Los Angeles Police Protective League blog post, which commented on the lack of “community or media outrage” over the “attempted murders” of multiple police officers just this week, even while outrage continues over Ford’s death. The LAPPL was clear in its opinion on Ford’s shooting.
“The reality is that when somebody attacks a police officer, they should expect the reaction to their attack will be swift, sure and met with enough force to end the assault,” the blog post reads.
Tuesday night, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck addressed a “hostile” audience at the South LA Paradise Baptist Church. Some in the crowd accused the police of racism, and people carried signs that read “Justice for Ezell F.” and “Don’t shoot, let us live.” Beck called for patience and for withholding judgment until all the facts are out.
“Just like I stand here and not prejudge Mr. Ford, I expect these officers aren’t prejudged,” Beck said.