Sacramento Police Unveil Body Cam Policy After Deadly Shooting, Protests

Body camera footage of Stephon Clark's killing reveals that the two officers who shot him were told to mute their microphones several minutes after the shooting

Sacramento police have issued their first written policy on when officers can turn off body cameras after two officers muted their microphones following the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man in his grandparents' backyard, and promised Tuesday to release more video footage in a week.

The department made the unusual decision to release video of Stephon Clark's shooting within three days after he was killed, including body camera footage from the two officers who shot the 22-year-old while responding to reports of someone breaking car windows, and from a sheriff's department helicopter circling overhead.

A spokesman, Sgt. Vance Chandler, said the department has a 30-day deadline from the March 18 shooting to release remaining video and audio recordings, including those from other responding officers and police squad cars. He spoke outside a special City Council meeting focused on department policies and practices after weeks of protests roiled California's capital city, disrupted professional basketball games and blocked rush hour traffic.

Body camera footage of Clark's killing reveals that the two officers who shot him were told to mute their microphones several minutes after the shooting.

The new policy requires officers to verbalize their reason for turning off the microphone.

Body camera use is covered in training but officers haven't received any written direction on when the equipment can be turned off until now, Chandler said.

Officers were previously told they could mute their cameras for personal conversations, including those that involve a supervisor, tactical discussions or times when a citizen requests that the camera be turned off, such as during a victim's statement.

The policy was in the works before Clark's shooting but his death prompted the department to issue the guidance more quickly, Chandler said.

He said the department is still investigating who told the officers to turn off the microphones; whether that person is a supervisor; and whether the decision was appropriate.

The department is adopting a widely used policy that should already have been in place, said Geoffrey Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina and an expert on police use of force.

"At least at this point they've got the proper rules in there now," he said. "It shouldn't happen again, but it shouldn't have happened in the first place."

The new policy says "employees shall not deactivate or mute their (cameras) until the investigative or enforcement activity involving a member of the public has concluded."

Officers can turn off their cameras while dealing with a victim of sexual assault or if a supervisor instructs them to do so.

They can also turn off the equipment if a victim or witness is refusing to provide a statement on camera and the situation is non-confrontational, or when speaking to a doctor, nurse or paramedic.

Sacramento City Councilman Allen Warren said it should be updated to include specific penalties for violating the policy.

Police Chief Daniel Hahn told City Council members that the department is also working with outside experts to give officers training and experience in avoiding implicit racial bias, including having new officers tour and do public works projects in predominantly minority neighborhoods.

The department said the two officers have been with Sacramento police for two and four years, but each has four years' previous experience with other law enforcement agencies. Both are on paid administrative leave.

"This is a very complex issue and it will take complex solutions. Our community is crying out for change," said Hahn, who became the city's first black police chief last year.

Mayor Darrell Steinberg said the council wants answers from Hahn in coming weeks on improvements to its policies and practices. He told Hahn that reconsidering the department's foot pursuit policy to minimize the use of lethal force should be "a top tier priority" for consideration.

"I think it gets at the essence of what we saw on that videotape and the essence of what we're struggling with as a community here together," Steinberg said.

Stevante Clark, Stephon's brother, shook Steinberg's hand weeks after cursing him at a much more unruly meeting. Stevante Clark began his brief remarks by leading the crowd in chanting his brother's name, then asked to meet privately with Hahn and Steinberg. He urged the media not to further air video of the shooting because it is distressing the family.

"My heart is gone," he said, repeatedly tapping his head. "Emotions, feelings...."

Two other members of the audience were escorted from the council chamber by police without incident after repeatedly interrupting other speakers or using profanity. Many of the roughly 60 activists and community members set to speak called for the two police officers to be fired and criminal charged, though experts cite court decisions that have held officers may use lethal force if they reasonably fear for their safety.

Several lawmakers and the family of a 22-year-old unarmed black man who was fatally shot by police proposed Tuesday that California become the first state to significantly restrict when officers can open fire.

The legislation would change the standard from using "reasonable force" to "necessary force."

That means officers would be allowed to shoot only if "there were no other reasonable alternatives to the use of deadly force" to prevent imminent serious injury or death, said Lizzie Buchen, legislative advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union, which is among the groups behind the measure.

"We need to ensure that our state policy governing the use of deadly force stresses the sanctity of human life and is only used when necessary," said Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, a San Diego Democrat who introduced the bill. "Deadly force can be used, but only when it is completely necessary."

The goal is to encourage officers to try to defuse confrontations or use less deadly weapons, said Democratic Assemblyman Kevin McCarty of Sacramento, who is co-authoring the legislation.

"We should no longer be the target practice or victims of a shoot first, ask questions later police force," said Assemblyman Chris Holden, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus.

But some in law enforcement called the proposal irresponsible and unworkable.

Officers already use deadly force only when necessary and are taught to try to defuse dangerous situations first when possible, said Ed Obayashi, a Plumas County sheriff's deputy and special prosecutor who trains officers and testifies in court on police use of force.

Tinkering with legal protections for police could make it more difficult to hire officers and be dangerous because they may hesitate when confronting an armed suspect, threatening themselves and bystanders, Obayashi said.

Spokesmen for the California Police Chiefs Association and California State Sheriffs' Association said they had not seen the proposal and could not comment.

Weber, who heads a public safety oversight committee, said she hopes the recent heavily publicized string of police shootings of minority suspects and mass protests over last month's death of Stephon Clark will be enough to overcome any law enforcement resistance.

Two Sacramento officers chased Clark, who was suspected of breaking into cars, into his grandparents' darkened backyard and opened fire within seconds and without identifying themselves as police because they said they thought he had a gun. Investigators found only a cellphone.

Changing the legal standard might mean that more people confronted by police "could go home. They may be able to wake up" the next day, said Clark's uncle, family spokesman Curtis Gordon.

"A life may be saved in that blink" of time before officers open fire, he said. "If you feel some sort of repercussion, you may act a little more cautiously."

Several black community leaders at the news conference called the proposal "a good first step."

Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn told The Associated Press last week that he is open to examining the department's policies on pursuing suspects and other practices but warned that changes could carry consequences.

California's current standard makes it rare for officers to be charged after a shooting and rarer still for them to be convicted. Frequently it's because of the doctrine of "reasonable fear." If prosecutors or jurors believe that officers have a reason to fear for their safety, they can use deadly force.

The tougher proposed standard could require officers to delay confronting a suspect they fear may be armed until backup arrives or force police to give explicit verbal warnings that suspects will be killed unless they drop the weapon," said Buchen of the ACLU.

The proposal would open officers who don't follow the stricter rules to discipline or firing, sometimes even criminal charges.

The ACLU says California would be the first state to adopt such a standard, though some other law enforcement agencies, including San Francisco, have similar or more restrictive rules.

Cities' strict standards are generally for situations where there is time to de-escalate volatile situations, such as with people who are mentally unstable, Obayashi said.

The lawmakers and ACLU point to a 2016 study by policy analyst and racial justice advocate Samuel Sinyangwe that analyzed use-of-force policies by major U.S. police departments. He found that officers working under more restrictive policies are less likely to kill and less likely to be killed or assaulted.

Officers fatally shot 162 people in California last year, only half of whom had guns, the lawmakers said.

They cited studies showing that black people are far more likely than white people to die in police shootings and that California has five of the nation's 15 police departments with the highest per capita rates of killings by officers: Bakersfield, Stockton, Long Beach, Santa Ana and San Bernardino.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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