Why did Sacramento officers who shot Stephon Clark mute their bodycams?

Police officials in Sacramento, California, boast about their use of body cameras, and the quick release of the footage they capture, as centerpieces of a larger effort to improve the public's trust.

But the fatal shooting by police officers last week of an unarmed black man, Stephon Clark, has exposed a potential flaw in that effort and opened up a new front in the national debate over body cameras: officers' ability to turn off the microphone on the device.

Body cam footage from the two officers who shot Clark in a residential backyard after dark on March 18 includes the chase, one officer shouting "gun" in a mistaken belief that Clark was armed, then the gunfire. It also covers the aftermath, as backup arrives and the officers walk to the street. During their exit, one officer says, "Hey, mute." Then the audio on both cameras goes silent while the video continues to show authorities responding to the scene.

Why the officers muted their body cameras remains unclear. Police Chief Daniel Hahn said last week that he could not explain it. He said there were "various reasons" why officers would turn off their cameras' audio, but he would not say if the Clark shooting was one of them. The muting, he said, would be part of his agency's investigation of the shooting.

The unanswered questions about the muted cams have stoked suspicion among Clark's family and protesters, who have criticized the shooting as an illegal use of force.

RELATED: Sacramento mourns after fatal shooting of Stephon Clark

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Fatal police shooting of Stephon Clark
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Fatal police shooting of Stephon Clark

 Stephon Clark, 22, was killed in a fatal officer involved shooting in California in March 2018.

(Photo: GoFundMe)

Police helicopter and body camera footage was released of the shooting.


(Photo: Sacramento Police Dept.)

SACRAMENTO, CA - MARCH 26: Sequita Thompson, (L) grandmother of Stephon Clark who was shot and killed by Sacramento police, cries as she speaks during a news conference with civil rights attorney Ben Crump (R) on March 26, 2018 in Sacramento, California. The family of Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man who was shot and killed by Sacramento police officers, have hired civil rights attorney Ben Crump to represent the Clark family in a wrongful death suit against the Sacramento police department. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Police helicopter and body camera footage was released of the shooting.

(Photo: Sacramento Police Dept.)
Candles light a sidewalk memorial to Stephon Clark, in Sacramento, California, U.S. March 23, 2018. REUTERS/Bob Strong
The house where police shooting victim Stephon Clark was slain is seen in Sacramento, California, U.S. March 24, 2018. REUTERS/Bob Strong
SACRAMENTO, CA - MARCH 26: A woman cries as civil rights attorney Ben Crump speaks during a news conference at Sacramento City Hall on March 26, 2018 in Sacramento, California. The family of Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man who was shot and killed by Sacramento police officers, has hired civil rights attorney Ben Crump to represent the Clark family in a wrongful death suit against the Sacramento police department. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
A sign is seen painted on the window of a car during a protest over the police shooting of Stephon Clark, in Sacramento, California, U.S. March 23, 2018. REUTERS/Bob Strong
Demonstrators gather to protest the police shooting of Stephon Clark, in Sacramento, California, U.S. March 23, 2018. REUTERS/Bob Strong
SACRAMENTO, CA - MARCH 26: Tanya Faison (L) with Black Lives Matter of Sacramento yells at a man who had confronted her before the start of a news conference with Civil rights attorney Ben Crump at Sacramento City Hall on March 26, 2018 in Sacramento, California. The family of Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man who was shot and killed by Sacramento police officers, have hired civil rights attorney Ben Crump to represent the Clark family in a wrongful death suit against the Sacramento police department. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
SACRAMENTO, CA - MARCH 26: Sequita Thompson, (C) grandmother of Stephon Clark who was shot and killed by Sacramento police, cries during a news conference with civil rights attorney Ben Crump on March 26, 2018 in Sacramento, California. The family of Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man who was shot and killed by Sacramento police officers, have hired civil rights attorney Ben Crump to represent the Clark family in a wrongful death suit against the Sacramento police department. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Deonnah Conway holds candles during a protest over the police shooting of Stephon Clark, in Sacramento, California, U.S. March 23, 2018. REUTERS/Bob Strong
Tami Collins, shows a placard protesting the fatal shooting of Stephon Clark by Sacramento police, during a demonstration in Sacramento, California, U.S., March 22, 2018. REUTERS/Sharon Bernstein
The house where police shooting victim Stephon Clark was slain is seen in Sacramento, California, U.S. March 24, 2018. REUTERS/Bob Strong
Jayden Sherman (R) and David Massey hold candles during a vigil to protest the police shooting of Stephon Clark, in Sacramento, California, U.S. March 23, 2018. REUTERS/Bob Strong
Mar 22, 2018; Sacramento, CA, USA; A young demonstrator holds a photo of Stephon Clark to the glass of the doors to Golden 1 Center as protestors block the entrance to the arena. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
Demonstrators gather to protest the police shooting of Stephon Clark, in Sacramento, California, U.S. March 23, 2018. REUTERS/Bob Strong
Demonstrators hold candles during a vigil to protest the police shooting of Stephon Clark, in Sacramento, California, U.S. March 23, 2018. REUTERS/Bob Strong
Demonstrators hold candles during a vigil to protest the police shooting of Stephon Clark, in Sacramento, California, U.S. March 23, 2018. REUTERS/Bob Strong
In Sacramento, police shot at an unarmed black man 20 times, killing him, when he turned out to be holding only a c… https://t.co/HTOLq5BVwP
On Sunday night, Sacramento Police Officers shot and killed Stephon Clark after firing 20 rounds while he was unarm… https://t.co/EynGnsuxrx
Father of two, Stephon Clark, was fatally shot in his backyard by Sacramento police on Sunday night. Police thought… https://t.co/HlfBchf2R2
#StephonClark was fatally shot by Sacramento police in his own backyard, carrying a cell phone that was mistaken fo… https://t.co/d2dYgNRQkX
Unarmed African American man fatally shot by Sacramento Police. He had a cell phone, they shot at him 20 times:… https://t.co/KfR61x8rhm
20 times. After first saying #StephonClark had a gun, then changing it to a crowbar, then admitting he just had a… https://t.co/xu4K0if3jv
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"When I heard [about the muted cameras] I felt it was intentional," Sonia Lewis, a cousin of Clark's, said last week. "You're muting something you don't want the public to hear what you're saying, and that means that if you don't want the truth to come out then all of it is a lie."

The family's attorney, Benjamin Crump, plans to file a wrongful-death lawsuit, he told the Daily Beast.

Betty Williams, president of the Sacramento branch of the NAACP, said at a Monday news conference that she had demanded that the police department share its protocol for muting body cams, and consider changes.

Sgt. Vance Chandler, a Sacramento police spokesman, said in an interview Monday that officers are taught during body-cam training "to utilize mute" in certain situations, but would not say what they were.

"That's part of what we are looking at in this incident," he said. He added, "We want to determine if this was an appropriate time for them to mute it or not."

The city's body-cam policy, which is posted online, does not mention muting at all. It says that officers should record "any enforcement or investigative activity" until that operation has "reasonably concluded." The policy adds that officers may deactivate their cameras under some circumstances, including talking about confidential or tactical matters, or for privacy concerns, as long as the reason is documented afterward.

Cedric Alexander, a former police chief in Rochester, New York, and former public safety director in Dekalb, County, Georgia, said he saw nothing wrong procedurally with the Sacramento officers muting their cameras in the aftermath of the shooting. Attorneys would advise officers to do that, to avoid recording comments that could be used in administrative or criminal proceedings, Alexander said.

But Alexander, a former president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and a member of the Task Force on 21st Century Policing under former President Barack Obama, said that while the muting didn't appear to break any rules, it looks bad.

"The problem is the optics of this," Alexander said.

In the immediate aftermath of shootings, officers often share what they experienced with their colleagues, said Jim Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation, which helps departments improve and reform. "My guess is one of them is about to ask what happened or he has a compelling desire to tell his friend what happened and why he did it," Bueermann said.

Bueermann said the muting of body cams does not appear to be unusual among American police officers. Agencies can request muting functionality from body-cam maker Axon, he said. But many agencies don't have policies covering how mute can be used.

"There's a void in many agency policies, and I would be surprised if they were not soon filled in response to the Sacramento incident around the muting," Bueermann said.

He pointed to San Francisco, where last year the police chief required officers to document when they muted their body cams.

As investigators examine what happened in the Clark shooting, his family is preparing for his funeral on Thursday.

"I want justice for my grandson," said Clark's grandmother, Sequita Thompson, at Monday's news conference.

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