Among the unanswered questions that have fueled anger in the wake of Stephon Clark’s shooting is why officers muted their body cameras after firing 20 shots at the unarmed black man.
Community activists and the Clark family’s attorney say the silencing came at an unsettling moment, as officers were regrouping following the shooting. Sacramento’s police chief said the issue is part of the investigation, adding that the decision to turn off the audio “builds suspicion.”
The incident draws attention to law enforcement rules dictating when officers can switch off the audio on their body cameras, coming at a time when the devices increasingly are being used to record police interactions with the public. Policies on muting cameras vary from department to department.
The officers involved in Clark’s shooting were searching a South Sacramento neighborhood for a burglary suspect on March 18 when they intercepted him. They fired 20 times, waited minutes to approach the dying man, then discovered the object he had been carrying was a cellphone.
Recordings show the officer who fired first told others he thought Clark had a weapon. “He had something in his hands. It looked like a gun from our perspective,” the officer said.
“He approached us, hands out, then fell down,” the second officer said.
Then a police sergeant arrived on the scene and appeared to take charge. He asked how many shots were fired and in what direction. He brought the officers to the street and is heard saying, “Hey, mute,” as he reached for his body camera.
The audio of both of the officers standing with him went silent. Video shows they remained at the scene.
The muted recordings fueled concerns from some that Sacramento police are not being fully transparent. Internal affairs investigators and the county prosecutor also are bound to turn to the recordings as they decide if the shooting was justified.
Sacramento police refused Friday to comment on why the sergeant appeared to tell officers to stop the audio recording.
“Part of our investigation will include looking at why the officers muted their body-worn cameras and if it was appropriate,” Sgt. Vance Chandler said in an email.
The city put body cameras on all officers after the 2016 killing of an older black man who was shot on the sidewalk after officers twice attempted to hit him with a patrol car. One of the officers was terminated and the other retired.
Sacramento’s body camera policy requires officers to record incidents that involve the public but allows them to turn off the equipment “on their discretion.” Examples given in the policy include “briefings,” discussions with supervisors or when officers are assigned to the sideline with no public interaction.
Other police departments have stricter policies. In Chicago, for instance, officers must declare aloud why they are turning off their equipment before they do so.
A model statute by the American Civil Liberties Union requires body cameras to stay activated until an officer leaves the scene and provides for disciplinary action if they don’t.
Seth Stoughton, a University of South Carolina law professor who studies shootings and was a police officer in Tallahassee, Fla., said turning off audio is potentially problematic. He said the decision to silence could be an indication of a decision to collaborate on accounts of what had just happened, or a response to the need for privacy after a traumatic event.
“Just because we can understand why an officer turned off their recording, it doesn’t make it OK,” he said.
Others said the recording issue is something that needs more focus by police.
“This is one of those areas that agencies just haven’t yet thought about,” said Mike White, an Arizona State University criminology professor who is co-director of a national training program for police departments that get federal funding for body cameras. “I think a lot of agencies are now going to go back and change their policies to address this particular issue.”
Even if a department policy explicitly allows a recording to end, doing so at the scene of an incident undermines the public accountability cameras are intended to provide.
“Just the perception alone it creates” is damaging, White said.