Last week, Bennet Omalu, a deeply religious, Nigerian-born doctor once portrayed by Will Smith, took on the second major institution of his decades-long career: the San Joaquin County sheriff’s office.
His announcement that he would resign his post in the office followed a previous statement by his lesser-known colleague, Dr. Susan Parson, who lasted less than a year as a forensic pathologist before resigning due to a work environment she called “personally unbearable” and “professionally unsustainable.” The two had been documenting instances of misconduct from the sheriff since at least March 2017.
Omalu has been a vocal and divisive character since his rise to fame as the first person to diagnose and publish on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a football player. In a 2009 GQ profile that would become the heavily fictionalized Concussion movie—a movie the Sony email hacks suggested had been edited so as not to offend the NFL—he was portrayed as an “advocate for the dead,” a relentless rookie pathologist who carted Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster’s brain to his condo in a plastic bin, studying the depressed player’s gray matter on a cutting board after-hours.
Attacked by NFL-funded scientists for his early publications on CTE, which would become the basis for the current debate over the horrific, depressive damage regular trauma can visit on the human brain, Omalu still speaks regularly on the subject. Critics claim he’s taken too much credit for inventing the term CTE, an idea that existed prior to his application of the disorder to professional football players; Omalu has said he suspects his status as an outsider, an immigrant, and a black man are partially to blame for the ire. The doctor has a clear affection for the dramatic. In August, promoting his most recent book, he compared America’s relationship with football to that of a lover who’d been cheated on.
In the mid-2000s, when he had not yet been situated near the center of the liberal war on football, Omalu left Pittsburg to work as the chief medical examiner in the San Joaquin County sheriff’s department. Last week he undertook an unusual protest, announcing that he would no longer perform autopsies for his boss, Sheriff Steve Moore, who was elected in 2006 after his predecessor went to prison. In April, Moore’s department was investigated for selling firearms to an out-of-town dealer and buying them back again. And in a four-page resignation letter, Omalu announced his departure following that of his colleague and mentee Dr. Parson, who also sent documents and memos detailing various abuses of power in the country’s coroner’s office.
“Recently, I became frigidly afraid that in continuing to work under the circumstances Sheriff Steve Moore has created in his office, that I may be aiding and abetting the unlicensed practice of medicine,” wrote Omalu. The sheriff, he continued, “has always made calculated attempts to control me as a physician and influence my professional judgement,” including barring Omalu from crime scenes and retaliating against the doctor when he testified against the sheriff’s wishes in high-profile cases.
Memos written by Omalu during his decade-long run, 113 pages of which were delivered to the district attorney’s office in the wake of the resignations, accuse Moore of using his dual position as sheriff and coroner to rule multiple officer-involved deaths as “accidents” rather than “homicides”; delaying investigative reports required for the pathologists to complete their work; and, in several confounding instances, ordering junior employees to cut hands off of bodies without Omalu’s consent. In one case cited in the memos, a report was withheld from Omalu that stated a suspect had been hit by a police taser 31 times, leading the pathologist to—incorrectly, he believes—rule the death an accident. Omalu’s notes allege he was asked to change a suspect’s cause of death for all three officer-involved deaths in 2016.
In an interview with local news outlet KQED, Moore denied the allegations and said he only ordered the surgical removal when hands were too decomposed to identify and had to be sent to a special state lab.
On Friday, following a DA investigation into the sheriff’s office and a wave of news reports, Omalu indicated he and his assistant might consider continuing their work if the jobs of coroner and sheriff were separated, as they are in 17 California counties, including San Francisco and San Diego —a conflict of interest that has plagued other areas, with little media attention compared to other police reforms.
Parson, in her resignation letter a week prior to Omalu’s described an “intolerable work environment” facilitated by the sheriff, who according to her boss reprimand her for filing a harassment claim against one of the sergeants in the department. It’s unlikely that separating the departments would protect future employees from such misconduct, and Omalu’s proposal to return on the condition of professional independence glosses over what sounds like a textbook harassment case.
Still, towards the close of this long and awful year, it seems Omalu—a celebrity scientist whose book has a forward from Will Smith, a free market enthusiast fond of high-profile whistleblowing endeavors starring himself—could be one of the few last good dudes on earth.