How will S.C.’s new body camera law affect local police agencies?

Lt. John Poole, Administrative Lieutenant and Training & Standards Officer with the Chester Police Department shows a body camera that their officers wear.
Lt. John Poole, Administrative Lieutenant and Training & Standards Officer with the Chester Police Department shows a body camera that their officers wear.

Gov. Nikki Haley on Wednesday signed a bill requiring all South Carolina law enforcement officers to be outfitted with body cameras, but all officers might not wear the cameras for another year.

Within six months of Wednesday’s bill signing, the Law Enforcement Training Council, an 11-member panel that includes York County Sheriff Bruce Bryant, must study the use, implementation and cost of body cameras in departments currently using the devices. The council is then being asked to draft guidelines for the cameras’ use by state and local law enforcement agencies. The law states the guidelines must specify which officers wear cameras, when they are activated, restrictions on use, the retention and release of data recorded on the cameras and access to that data.

Bryant said the council deals with law enforcement training issues throughout the state, and legislators periodically sends it issues.

“There’s a little bit of leeway there for us to set the parameters. What we’ve got to do is look at policy and procedures,” he said. “There’s a few policies already in place. We’ll have to start pulling from them and coming up with the best criteria.”

Legislators and law enforcement agencies around the country have grappled with the philosophical, financial and legal aspects of requiring officers to wear cameras, the calls for which have grown in the wake of high-profile deaths of suspects involving officers in Ferguson, Mo., New York City and Cleveland, Ohio. The issue hit South Carolina in April, when a North Charleston police officer fatally shot a man in the back as he ran from a traffic stop. Two body camera bills were filed in the General Assembly before this legislative session, but the North Charleston shooting, which was recorded on a cellphone by a bystander, spurred lawmakers to pass a bill.

After the guidelines are drafted, agencies will have 180 days to submit their policies, which the council will either approve or reject. The council will submit a report to the General Assembly a year from now that includes recommendations for laws and the fiscal impact of implementing and using body cameras. First, the council will consult with the two dozen or so agencies around the state that are using body cameras, including several in York and Chester counties.

York Police Department

The York Police Department has had body cameras on some of its officers since 2012.

At $1,000 each, 10 cameras were purchased with a $10,000 grant, according to Chief Andy Robinson. However, over the years, the warranties expired and the cameras began to malfunction. Only a handful of York’s cameras work now, but the department has purchased other cameras that are different models.

Police officer body cameras - and the crime scenes and interactions they record - are increasingly part of a national conversation about law enforcement practices. In June, S.C. passed a law requiring all police officers to wear cameras while work

York police primarily use a Taser brand camera that is attached to a band on the officer’s head. The camera, about the size of a flash drive, is situated on the side of the officer’s head near the ear.

Lt. Dale Edwards said this model is beneficial because the camera can be detached from the band to look in hard-to-reach areas or around corners. An application allows the camera to provide a live feed on the officer’s cellphone.

“I’ve done that a couple of times, looking for armed suspects we thought were in attics,” Edwards said. He added that the same model captures anything the officer has his face turned toward, while models that affix to an officer’s chest are limited in what they capture and can be obstructed by an officer’s hands or arms.

Robinson said the cameras have been useful in locking up some criminal cases, like that of 73-year-old Leroy Moore, who pleaded guilty last month to watching child pornography in a Lowe’s parking lot using the store’s Wi-Fi signal. He was arrested by officers wearing body cameras.

“I like the fact that they hold the officer accountable for their actions, and they have cleared many false complaints against officers,” Robinson said. “But they do have limitations.”

The biggest issue York police have encountered is storage for the video footage, which Robinson said is a bigger cost than the cameras’ purchase. York has already filled two servers with footage.

Another issue they’ve considered is retaining footage of multiple defendants if one of the defendants is found not guilty.

“If they’re found not guilty and we have to expunge their record, we don’t have the capability and software to go back and edit that,” Robinson said. “We have to keep it for one, but any trace of the other person has to be deleted.”

Robinson would like to either get the broken cameras repaired or purchase new ones, and eventually outfit his entire force. He tried unsuccessfully last year to get more cameras in the budget, and the department was recently turned down for a grant to purchase more.

Winthrop University police

Winthrop Police Chief Frank Zebedis’ officers began wearing body cameras in August 2013.

“It wasn’t for any kind of big brother-type deal,” he said. “It was just to enhance our opportunities to win cases in court and provide better evidence. It’s also there in the event any complaints are filed. We’ve had some complaints come in, and we’ve brought the individuals in and showed them that body cam footage, and the complaint is withdrawn at that point.”

Zebedis’ department paid for the first few cameras – $700 each – from its own budget, he said. Three officers would go on patrol at a time with the cameras, and once the shift ended, they would upload the footage and pass the same cameras on to the next shift. The department was later given several cameras through the S.C. Law Enforcement Network and now has one for each officer.

Zebedis said Winthrop police had no issues implementing the cameras.

“I had no pushback from the officers. I think the officers liked it,” he said. “Unfortunately, the day of taking the officer’s word for face value has gone away. If it’s not recorded, it didn’t happen.”

Winthrop officers activate their cameras for all calls, turning the devices on when contact starts with someone and turning it off after contact ends, Zebedis said.

The cameras are durable for the most part, Zebedis said, adding that a couple of the units have to be sent off for maintenance several times a year.

Chester police

Chester Police Chief Andre Williams worked for an agency that used body cameras before he moved to the Chester Police Department in 2011.

He immediately went to the City Council about outfitting his officers with them, giving the council the pros and cons of the cameras. Chester outfitted 20 patrol officers with cameras at $57 each, but Williams’ department is seeking grant funding to get newer, better devices. He said the City Council is open to either matching a grant or providing some percentage of the funds.

“When we first bought them, we just settled for a cheaper route,” he said. “In light of what’s going on in America, I’m pretty sure we’re going to get (upgrades).”

Storing footage from the cameras has been one of the main hangups for law enforcement agencies, but Chester police say CDs have been a great alternative to the more expensive server space.

“They work fine,” said Lt. John Poole, who oversees Chester’s training standards. “You label them, you keep track of them, and when we need them in the future, we’ve got them and can just go to it.”

Poole said flash drives and external hard drives are other less costly alternatives to server storage.

The 16GB memory card in a camera is normally filled up after a single shift, according to Poole. Officers upload their footage after each shift, which takes about a minute.

Since the cameras were implemented, Williams has required his officers to check them before each shift to ensure they’re working properly. If a camera isn’t functioning, the officer must report it to a supervisor.

“If an officer knows their body mic is broken and doesn’t report it, they will be written up,” Williams said. “Just like you check your weapon, your vest, your car, you check your camera. That camera, the way I look at it, can help you or it can hurt you. Preferably, if you’re trying to do the right thing, it can help you.”

Williams said he can easily name several cases in which complaints against his officers were later invalidated after viewing body cam footage. He added that body cams have their drawbacks, and he doesn’t want residents to think they’re a “cure-all.”

The cameras Chester officers wear clip onto the front of the officer’s uniform. Poole said the plastic clips break easily during struggles or from normal wear and tear like seat belt use.

Chester County Sheriff’s Office

The Chester County Sheriff’s Office in 2013 outfitted about 20 patrol deputies with cameras, which cost about $800 each, according to Chief Deputy Robert Sprouse. Now, only a handful of the cameras are operational.

“Right now, we just don’t have the budget to replace those that are broken and to outfit all the officers,” Sprouse said. “The big thing is storage issues. They do take up a lot of storage.”

The sheriff’s office is “dead in the water” on funding for new cameras, Sprouse said. Department officials made County Council aware of the pending legislation, and are waiting to see what the Law Enforcement Training Council decides.

When the cameras were implemented, Maj. Randy Marsh said, deputies were instructed to turn them on at the beginning of each call, and to turn them off when the call was completed.

“At first, it was kind of hard to get used to them,” he said.

Deputies uploaded the footage after each shift, which Marsh said could take 20 minutes to an hour, depending on how busy the shift was. Once the footage is uploaded, it’s saved, and only a supervisor can delete it.

Marsh said the computer system they have allows for footage from smaller calls, like a barking dog, to be deleted after five days. A saved file will stay in the system for 21 days, and deputies will receive a notification as the 21-day mark approaches in case they want to save it longer.

In addition to storage limitations, Sprouse and Marsh said the biggest drawbacks they’ve noticed from the cameras are the clip used to attach the camera to the uniform can be easily damaged and the video quality at night can be poor. Some body cameras, they said, are night vision-compatible.

‘Not just sitting back and waiting’

Other area law enforcement agencies are either researching or testing body cameras, but are hitting the pause button on purchasing until the training council develops its guidelines.

“We’re not just sitting back and waiting solely on some answers with regard to the requirements,” said Maj. Bryan Zachary of the Fort Mill Police Department. “We have gone ahead into the research aspect of things, looking at equipment and storage requirements. It’s an ongoing process.”

The Rock Hill Police Department has been discussing and researching body cameras for more than a year, and two months ago began testing two cameras on officers, according to spokesman Mark Bollinger.

“We’re supporting it, but we want to make sure we get quality equipment and that all the legal and funding issues get resolved before we go into this full-speed ahead,” he said. “It’s a complex issue, but we’re starting at the front end with the testing and evaluation.”

The Lancaster Police Department began researching body cameras more than a year ago and has been testing different models during the last year, according to Capt. Scott Grant. He said department officials see benefits from cameras, including reducing complaints against officers and using the cameras as a training tool for officers to review calls.

“I think most departments are pro-body camera, but the big elephant in the room is going to be the data storage of all of this,” he said. “I don’t think we truly know yet how that’s going to affect a department our size. In no time at all, we’re going to have hundreds of hours of video that has to be stored somewhere.”

The Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office has been testing body cameras for about two months in “non-law enforcement scenarios,” according to spokesman Doug Barfield.

The Tega Cay Police Department tested several models last year and is still researching different models. The Clover Police Department has also begun testing cameras, and recently sent three officers with cameras to assist Myrtle Beach police during Bike Week.

York County Sheriff Bruce Bryant said his office has been researching and will soon begin testing cameras. He said he sees benefits and drawbacks to officers wearing body cameras.

“Would I do it without the mandate? Maybe. I think it could be a good thing,” he said. “I put cameras in my patrol cars before most agencies did around here, because I wanted traffic stops to be recorded for the safety of my officers, for the safety of the public.”

Questions about funding

In addition to storage for the video files, the other big question for law enforcement agencies is funding, not just for implementing but maintaining the body camera programs.

The new law establishes a “Body-Worn Cameras Fund” with the S.C. Department of Public Safety, from which agencies can request funding after their policies have been approved. Agencies are not required to implement body cameras until funding becomes available, and those that already have body cameras can apply for reimbursement from the fund.

Total expenditures could exceed $21 million, with $12 million in recurring expenses for storage and maintenance, according to State Rep. Tommy Pope, R-York. He said the guidelines and approval process will give lawmakers time to come up with funding. In the meantime, area law enforcement agencies say they have at least made their governing bodies aware of the law, and are exploring other funding options, including grants.

“By the time that rolls around, arguably, we’ll be in the budget process for the next fiscal year,” Pope said. “That’ll be when they’ve projected it out, so it’ll be a good time to deal with the funding issues.”

Teddy Kulmala •  803-329-4082