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Can Police Turn Off Body Cameras?

By Molly Zilli, Esq. | Last updated on

Police tactics have taken center stage with the Sacramento shooting of an unarmed black man named Stephon Clark. In that case, police body cam footage shows police officers shooting him 20 times after receiving a call about a man breaking car windows. But it also reveals officers muting their audio after the shooting. This and other instances raise the question about whether or not police officers are allowed to turn off their body cameras while on the job. The answer is: it depends.

Why Have Body Cameras?

Tragedies such as this have fueled the flames when it comes to scrutinizing law enforcement's use of force. Over the years, more and more people have called for the use of police body cameras. And many police departments have responded by adopting them as a way to bolster the public's trust and ensure their officers are following protocol. However, neither of these goals are achieved when officers turn off or mute their cameras at key moments of a given altercation.

In the Stephon Clark incident, officers are told to mute their body cams after the shooting, raising suspicions about why officers felt they couldn't speak on record about what just happened. In subsequent reports, the officers say they thought Clark was holding a gun. But investigators did not find a weapon at the scene of the shooting.

When Can Officers Turn Off Their Body Cams?

Although many police departments have started body cam programs, there is no federal rule regarding their use or when they have to be activated. This is determined by each department, though there are some statewide programs. In the case of Stephon Clark, the Sacramento Police Department's policy for body cameras includes 16 instances where the camera must be activated, including vehicle stops, foot pursuits, and protests. However, it does not say when the audio must be activated.

Furthermore, the policy states that the officer may use his or her discretion in deciding to deactivate their body cam under certain circumstances. For example, if a witness or victim refuses to provide a statement on camera, or if a recording "would interfere with his or her ability to conduct an investigation" the officer may turn of the body cam. Other reasons include privacy concerns and witnessing sexual crimes.

Are Officers Punished for Turning Off Their Body Cams?

Just as policies vary from department to department, so too do the repercussions for failing to abide by those policies. For example, Sacramento policy states that the failure to activate one's body cam is not a cause for discipline unless it was deliberate or part of a repeated pattern of doing so. In a police shooting that occurred in New Orleans, police officers were required but failed to have their body cameras on. One of the officers received a one-day suspension.

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