Police Chief Admits Body Camera Muting After Killing of Stephon Clark Is Suspicious

Sacramento police officers muted their body cameras shortly after fatally shooting an unarmed black man in his grandparent’s back yard last week. Now, the police chief admits that action “builds suspicion.”

On March 18, Stephon Clark, 22, was in his grandparent’s back yard when 2 police officers came around a corner and shot at him 20 times. Police claimed he was holding a gun, but there was no gun, a cell phone was the only thing retrieved from the scene of the crime.

The Sacramento Police Department released two body camera videos from the shooting, and in both videos, an officer can be heard saying, “Hey, mute.” The video then goes silent as the officers continue secretly conversing.

The muting of the body cameras has raised even more suspicions about the officer’s response to the unarmed man who was standing in the yard where he lived.

Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn said the action has added to the tension after the shooting, reported KTLA.

“Muting is one of those things that we have to take a look at,” Hahn said. “Any time there is muting on this camera, it builds suspicion — as it has in this case. And that is not healthy for us in our relationship with our community.”

The Sacramento Police Department’s 2016 body camera policy does not specifically mention when officers can disable audio on the recordings.

The department policy includes 16 interactions when a body camera is required to be activated, including vehicle stops and sobriety tests as well as foot and vehicle pursuits.

KTLA reported that the policy says officers can deactivate their cameras in some instances. These instances may occur when officers are having tactical or confidential conversations, when officers are trying to conserve battery life or if a witness or victim refuses to give a statement on camera, according to the policy. Some situations are also based on the officer’s judgment, like if a recording would interfere with the officer’s ability to investigate or if recording would be inappropriate based on the victim or witness’ physical condition and emotional state.

Mayor Darrell Steinberg said, “I think it’s a policy we should look at very carefully and perhaps change entirely.”

Peter Bibring, director of police practices with ACLU Southern California, said he does not know of any department where an officer muted video, until now.

“Just because an officer thinks this shouldn’t be released, that’s not a discussion officers should be having,” he said. “Officers should not be having personal conversations during the course of an investigation. And that’s certainly not what was going on here.”

Seth W. Stoughton, assistant professor of law at the University of South Carolina School of Law, does not agree with the officers’ decision to mute their recordings.

“I think that muting the microphone is wrong,” Stoughton said. “By not capturing that information, they may be undermining the investigation.”

Regardless of why the officers muted their cameras, they have definitely raised more suspicions about their actions by doing so.