Let the public see body cam footage

The words “body cam” and “dash cam” are certain to become a part of the national vocabulary in the near future, if they aren’t already. And footage of police encounters with the public is likely to become an integral part of any investigation.

So, the question looms: Could the violence and unrest that roiled Charlotte last week have been largely avoided or at least mitigated if footage from the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott had been made public earlier?

It’s a relevant question not only for the city of Charlotte but also for law enforcement agencies throughout both North and South Carolina. Without revisions in the bill signed into law last year by Gov. Nikki Haley, South Carolina could be inviting a similar reaction from the public following the next questionable shooting incident involving police.

What happened in Charlotte is instructive. Following the Sept. 20 fatal shooting of Scott, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney announced that he had no intention of releasing footage recorded by a body camera worn by one of the officers involved in the shooting or footage from a dash camera mounted in their car.

The footage was viewed by Scott’s family and their attorney and, later, by Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts. But Charlotte residents had to settle for Putney’s assurances that the videos revealed no definitive details about the shooting, including whether Scott was armed when he was shot.

The footage finally was made public Saturday but only after Scott’s family had released a dramatic cellphone video taken by the victim’s wife during her husband’s shooting.

No one can say with any certainty whether refusal to release the tapes was the cause of the week of protests and two nights of street violence that followed the shooting. But it might have been a contributing factor.

Conversely, footage of a fatal confrontation in Tulsa, Okla., between police and another African-American man was released within three days of the shooting by the Tulsa Police Department, and no violence of large protests took place. Tulsa Mayor Dewey F. Bartlett Jr. urged city residents to come together to help the victim’s family grieve and promised a fair investigation.

“This city will be transparent, this city will not cover up, this city will do exactly what is necessary to make sure that all rights are protected and to make sure that all rights shall be done,” Bartlett said.

In Charlotte, city officials had the discretion to release or withhold the footage of the shooting. That will change Saturday when a new state law that sets limits on public access to police videos takes effect.

South Carolina’s law governing the use of police body cams and dash cams, which was passed last year, heavily restricts when footage can be made public. The law specifies that body camera footage is not part of the public record and not subject of Freedom of Information Act requirements.

We understand why police might want to delay making footage public if doing so would jeopardize an investigation in some way. There also are instances in which the privacy of individuals should be protected, especially if the filming occurs in a private home.

But we think the release of nearly all footage within a short time – say, no more than three days – is reasonable.

One of the primary functions of taping encounters between police and the public is to deter officers from overstepping their authority and mistreating suspects. Footage also serves to protect police from false accusations about unnecessary use of force.

But only public oversight can achieve those ends. Withholding footage, by contrast, suggests that law enforcement agencies have something to hide – which can help spur mass demonstrations.

If South Carolina doesn’t want a repeat of what occurred in Charlotte last week, lawmakers should consider measures that make body cam footage recorded in public places part of the public record and available for viewing by the public within a short time.