Thanks for west Modesto shooting footage, Sheriff, but please, limit production

Stanislaus County Sheriff Jeff Dirkse: Is there unvarnished video that you could share with the public showing your deputies killing a man in west Modesto?

Footage that isn’t carefully packaged and designed to sway the viewer?

We’re grateful that your department finally began using body cameras in April, and that you are sharing, for the first time, video of a “critical incident.” No doubt doing so boosts your credibility among the people you serve and protect.

We just wonder why you felt compelled to cushion 1 minute, 39 seconds of action among 3 minutes and 26 seconds of introduction, education, explanation and wrap-up.

It seems that the department is trying awfully hard to push its narrative of how the death of 52-year-old Stephen Murray went down.


It’s obvious that accounts across the United States of law enforcement officers using lethal force against unarmed black men have touched nerves, prompting many angry protests, marches, vigils and lawsuits. No one blames you, Sheriff, for trying to get out in front of this story.

From what we’ve been told, the facts appear to line up on your side:

  • The suspect was wanted for a car theft in Ceres.
  • On July 16, in west Modesto, he told deputies he was armed and had a hostage, an unidentified woman.
  • Deputies followed him and used hostage negotiation tactics.
  • Murray threatened the woman and officers.
  • He brandished what looked like a handgun as deputies approached,
  • And he put the woman between himself and deputies, using her a shield.

Yes, it’s important to know those things, so that we understand why deputies fired. They could not have known, in the dark at 10 p.m., that Murray actually was holding a harmless replica of a pistol and could not have fired at the woman or deputies.

Yes, the footage — from body cams worn by two of four deputies involved — is chaotic. It’s not even close to a Hollywood set, with perfectly placed cameras, lighting and microphones.

Imperfect video from cops in action is something that the American viewing public has come to expect. The other 3 minutes and 26 seconds of background context seems like needlessly overdoing your justification. You call it context; we fear it’s overkill.

After another Stanislaus County deputy shot and killed an unarmed Modesto woman in February 2017, dash cam footage from a Ripon police car taught us much, bringing a depth of understanding that simply can’t be captured in a police report or by any other means. In fact, the video helped undo misinformation initially produced by authorities who said the deputy fired into Evin Yadegar’s car to keep her from backing over officers; we didn’t learn the truth until a year later, when footage was released and we could see that he fired as she moved forward, trying to get around a patrol vehicle in her path.

No context, no introductory explanation, no captions, were given or needed then to help us understand.

If you want to be truly transparent, find a way to share these “critical incident community briefings” without the veneer. We appreciate that you’ve offered raw video, subject to a formal request through the California Public Records Act; it would seem that you could continue sharing important and even edited footage without telling us what to think about it.

Near the end of your recent production, Sheriff, you come on camera to say, “We share this video with you because we believe it’s critical for our community to have as much information as possible about these types of incidents.” Well done. We want to see our tax dollars in action. We just don’t need the spin.

Studies show that police body cam footage protects and exonerates officers far more than it condemns them. Give us fewer talking points, trust us, and let us decide for ourselves.