Prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys are waiting to see how South Carolina’s new law requiring law enforcement officers to wear body cameras will affect the attorneys’ workload and the prosecution of cases.
A bill requiring officers to wear body cameras was signed into law earlier this month. It requires the Law Enforcement Training Council to draft guidelines for implementing and using cameras. Agencies must submit their policies for approval within nine months.
Sixteenth Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett said body cameras offer a great form of video evidence, but he is concerned about having enough storage to retain the footage submitted to his office. His office is required by the S.C. Department of Archives and History to maintain the footage for 50 years.
“We’re talking about, potentially, a tremendous amount of digital data that’s got to be stored,” he said. “The same problems law enforcement’s going to have, we’re going to have albeit to a lesser degree.”
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Footage from magistrate-level offenses or that the police agency is retaining in case of civil action wouldn’t be sent to solicitors’ offices, Brackett said. Still, prosecutors already save digital files for cases from dash cameras, surveillance cameras, cellphones and computers, all of which must also be backed up.
An even bigger issue, Brackett says, is watching all the footage from each call. More than 90 percent of the cases in Brackett’s judicial circuit in York and Union counties are less than a year old, and he worries that watching a large additional amount of video could slow the processing of cases.
“We are obligated to view all of this data,” he said. “If you take an average case involving a disturbance and two police officers respond ... there might be two or three police officers out there for an hour or two, sorting it all out, taking statements, talking to potential witnesses. The camera’s rolling. All of a sudden, we have six hours or seven hours worth of video for one case that that attorney has to view. We need to know what they said there; we can’t prosecute the case without knowing what the evidence is.”
A more serious crime such as a murder, he said, might have more officers on a scene for a longer time, meaning more body cam footage.
“Every 80 hours of video is two 40-hour weeks of somebody sitting there watching it,” he said. “There’s got to be some balance. I think it’s a great idea overall, from a broad perspective. ... But at the same time, we don’t want to solve one problem and, in the process, create a problem that’s as large and ongoing year after year.”
Harry Dest, the public defender in the 16th Judicial Circuit, said the extra work is worth it if the body cameras lead to greater transparency. He would like to see law enforcement take cameras a step further.
“I would also be a proponent of having all statements a defendant made while they’re in custody, taped,” he said. “We can see whether or not someone does really, freely, and voluntarily give up their rights before they give a statement to the police. There’s no question to the content of the statement.”
Dest said he sees no drawbacks to the cameras, which when used for evidence could benefit the state or the defense.
“I think the facts become clearer because we have a videotape of what used to be documented in reports subject to interpretation,” he said. “It’d be like you and me talking football, and you trying to write it down and explain it to me.”
Rock Hill attorney Leland Greeley said he doesn’t think body camera footage will slow down the judicial system, but it could actually have the opposite effect.
“We could end up seeing guilty pleas, we could end up seeing dismissals,” he said. “They could aid in a quicker resolution for the case.”
Watching footage from multiple cameras on the same call might not always be necessary, according to Seth Stoughton, an associate professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law who focuses on criminal procedure.
“There will certainly be cases where the solicitors, the attorneys, the jury might need to see multiple body cams, and yes, that will certainly take time,” he said. “I don’t think they’re going to play a permanent role in most cases. Most cases we have right now don’t require camera footage, even though we’ve had some type of footage from surveillance footage and police car dash cam footage.”
Stoughton said the storage and technological aspects are a concern , but he said it’s tough to tell how body cameras might affect the speed of the judicial system.
“It’s important to remember that the vast majority of cases end in a plea deal,” he said. “I don’t think we’re going to slow the plea process down by introducing this footage.”
He is also concerned about placing too much emphasis on cameras as a solution to bad police-community relations or a complete solution to protecting officers from frivolous complaints.
“What I’m afraid of is that agencies and local politicians will say, ‘We have body cameras, so we don’t need to make strides in other areas. We don’t need to improve in other ways,’” he said. “Body cameras will help. They are a tool; but they are only one tool of many, all of which should be used to get policing where we want it to be.”
Teddy Kulmala • 803-329-4082