Wave upon wave of arriving officers consciously concealed their discussions of the police killing of Stephon Clark in Sacramento last month, a new raft of videos released by the city shows.
An earlier trio of videos showed that the pair of officers who killed Clark chose to mute their body cameras in the minutes after shooting the unarmed man in his grandmother’s backyard. The new videos illustrate that this impulse to keep immediate discussions of what happened out of the public record was much broader.
The 51 additional videos capture 14 separate instances of an officer muting their camera while talking to other cops. There are other audio gaps in the footage when officers are mentioning addresses, names, or identifying information for themselves or civilian witnesses. Some of those gaps come from officers at the scene clicking their mute buttons, but others were redactions performed later to protect privacy concerns, a department spokesman told ThinkProgress.
Four times in the clips, one cop tells another to mute their camera. At one point, an officer stops in the middle of describing what she understood happened to silence her recorder.
The Sacramento Police Department did not then have any written policy on when officers may mute their body-worn recorders. In the tense days after Clark’s killing, Chief Daniel Hahn speculated that officers might need to mute their cameras at times to protect sensitive investigative or tactical information. The muting detail from the initial videos also prompted Hahn to institute a formal policy on the matter last week, which restricts the list of legitimate reasons for muting mandates that officers must articulate a reason before clicking the sound off.
Police have tremendous incentive to conceal conversations in the immediate aftermath of a use-of-force incident. Even if they are never charged, their decisions will be evaluated in at least three different forums: the civilian court of public opinion, the administrative review process of their department, and informal cop-to-cop chatter that delineates between a “bad shoot” and a “clean shoot.” But all three of these evaluations hinge on the same fundamental logic: What happened, how did it happen, and why?
The officers’ collective dedication to keep their chatter off the record will complicate ongoing pushes for accountability. A police officer’s liability – including any potential criminal liability – hinges on what he or she perceived at the scene and whether a hypothetical “reasonable officer” with the same training and subject to the same official policies would have done. If a cop is on the record saying he panicked, for example, he’s going to have a hard time claiming later his conduct was professional and justified.
Police killings elsewhere illustrate the immense value of hearing how cops talk about their actions in the immediate aftermath. Dashcam video from the killing of Philando Castile, for example, captured the alternately distraught and angry screams of former St. Anthony, Minnesota, officer Jeronimo Yanez just after he put a half-dozen bullets in Castile during a traffic stop. Yanez was ultimately acquitted of criminal charges.
The same week Yanez killed Castile, officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, shot Alton Sterling dead outside a convenience store. Video released much later showed Sterling ask “What’d I do?” repeatedly as the officers tried to physically restrain him. Officer John Salamoni responded, “Don’t fucking move or I’ll shoot your fucking ass, bitch.”
“Put your fucking hands on the car, put your hands on the car or I’ma shoot you in your fucking head, understand me?” Salamoni continued, repeating the threat to shoot Sterling in the head in louder and angrier tones.
After the cops shoot Sterling on the ground moments later, the cameras capture their immediate conversation. “Stupid motherfucker!” the same officer shouts repeatedly at Sterling’s body. Salamoni was fired, though both state and federal law enforcement officials declined to bring homicide or civil rights charges against him.
Contrast these stories with the killing of Laquan McDonald by former Chicago Police Department officer Jason Van Dyke. For most of a year, the department and the city insisted Van Dyke had fired out of necessity after McDonald, holding a knife, lunged toward fellow cops.
It was a carefully crafted story, as the nation later learned when local reporters and courts forced the city to release videos of the killing. Eventually it came out that Van Dyke’s colleagues at the scene had rounded up and sought to conceal surveillance video from nearby stores in order to protect the lie they’d agreed upon: That McDonald had been moving toward officers when Van Dyke hopped out of his cruiser and decided to empty a clip into the teenager. In reality, McDonald was walking away.
We have no recordings of the discussions at the scene between Van Dyke and the officers who covered up his “bad shoot.” Van Dyke faces murder charges and numerous officers are on trial for conspiring to obstruct justice in the case.