'Shut your camera off': OKC police quiet after officers charged, body camera footage part of case
As authorities stood around the scene of the deadly police shooting of a 15-year-old robbery suspect in November, an officer with the Oklahoma City Police Department was instructed to stop recording on a body-worn camera.
“You can go ahead and shut your camera off,” the officer was told.
Until a criminal trial, those words might be among last the public will hear from Oklahoma City police regarding the fatal shooting of Stavian Rodriguez, five officers charged with first-degree manslaughter and community concerns about officer-involved shootings.
Rodriguez was shot around 7 p.m. Nov. 23 after he had dropped a gun outside Okie Gas Express at 7917 S Western Ave. An autopsy found he had been hit by gunfire 13 times.
Bethany Sears, 30, Jared Barton, 33, Corey Adams, 28, Jonathan Skuta, 34, and Brad Pemberton, 31, remain on paid administrative leave.
The Oklahoman asked the Oklahoma City Police Department how many officers in total were on the deadly scene, how many officers wore body cameras and if there are protocols in place for turning the cameras off.
Amid calls from some police reform activists for Police Chief Wade Gourley’s resignation, The Oklahoman also asked whether Gourley would be available to discuss the Rodriguez shooting, de-escalation training and criminal charges filed against his officers, which also include a first-degree manslaughter charge against Sgt. Clifford Holman in the Dec. 11 shooting death of a fleeing mentally ill man who was armed with a knife.
“All questions related to this particular investigation will need to be addressed by the District Attorney’s office,” Capt. Dan Stewart told The Oklahoman in an email exchange. “Chief Gourley will not be making any statements.”
District Attorney David Prater filed charges against the officers after an extensive review of police body camera videos and a security camera video. The prosecutor released all those videos Wednesday.
Police also released the body camera videos Wednesday but not the security camera video.
'Inconsistency' on police policy on footage
Prater told The Oklahoman there may have been up to 30 officers on the scene, including around 18 in some video frames he witnessed, but the responsibility of releasing body camera footage in a timely way to the public and investigators falls on the Police Department.
“There does seem to be an inconsistency as to when the Oklahoma City Police Department is releasing bodycams, and they will have to address that,” Prater said.
Stewart, the police captain, said it is not uncommon for an officer to turn off a body camera after the completion of an incident and before conversations with other officers or supervisors.
He directed The Oklahoman to bodycam protocols published on the city’s website.
The policy states body cameras “shall not be activated or shall be deactivated” in certain locations and situations, including “during a conversation with any supervisor or investigator after an incident has been resolved," and “at the conclusion of a call or incident, or while maintaining a secured crime scene after an incident has been resolved, if approved by a supervisor.”
Viewing the footage
The Rodriguez case has drawn national attention and law enforcement experts around the country have watched at least some of the videos, including footage of an officer being told to turn off a body camera.
“Your immediate thought is ‘what are they trying to hide?’” said Charles Stephenson, a former Tulsa officer and FBI agent and instructor. “Or it could be ‘turn it off. We don’t need to see this, he’s dead.’”
Stephenson said police departments across the country have different protocols for the use of body-worn cameras. For example, some departments set the cameras to continue recording for some time after an officer turns them off.
Based in Kansas, Stephenson has 30 years of law enforcement experience, including expertise in investigative procedures used during a homicide investigation.
He has testified in numerous court trials, including on behalf of Ammon Bundy and other co-defendants charged with conspiracy and firearms violations in connection with the 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon.
Bundy and other defendants were acquitted.
Stephenson cautioned that body camera footage may not be enough to convince a jury that an officer is guilty in a criminal case. Factors such as what an officer may see beyond the camera’s lens, lighting outside and interactions with a suspect before a shooting all play a part in a jury’s decision.
“I think what they are going to look at is perception and reaction,” he said. “They’re going to look real close at the timestamps of each video of each officer. There’s usually a lot more to the totality of the case than the bodycam footage. Folks that haven’t been in the game and haven’t been there take a simplistic approach.”
What actually happened?
Police in November said Rodriguez did not follow officers' commands after climbing out of the drive-through window and holding a pistol.
Surveillance video shows he was not holding the weapon when he exited the window and later placed it on the ground before police shot him.
Police reported Rodriguez went into the store twice Nov. 23 demanding money from the clerk at gunpoint.
An accomplice identified by police as Wyatt Allen Cheatham, 17, of Oklahoma City, was charged in December with first-degree murder.
The shooting sparked a $175,000 negligence claim against the city and protests in which some called for the resignation of Gourley and Mayor David Holt.
In December, Holt issued a lengthy message about officer-involved shootings and the local government’s role in responding, as well as offering his condolences to the families of Rodriguez and Bennie Edwards.
Asked for comment Thursday, a day after five Oklahoma City police officers were charged with manslaughter, the Mayor’s Office deferred to City Manager Craig Freeman.
In an email, Freeman said he has reviewed video of the shooting and spoken to Gourley about the matter, but did not elaborate.
“Stavian’s death is a tragedy, and our hearts go out to his family,” Freeman said.
The Police Department is constantly reviewing procedures and training to be able to continue to improve service to residents, Freeman said.
“We are actively working with the mayor’s Law Enforcement Policy Task Force and the Community Policing Working Group to review and make recommendations on de-escalation policies, accountability to our residents and improvements in community policing,” Freeman said. “21 CP Solutions, a national consulting firm focused on law enforcement improvement and reform, is working with the task force and the working group to engage the community and develop recommendations for improvement.”