State needs to pay for universal bodycam program

If the state Legislature mandates that all or most of the state’s law enforcement officers wear body cameras to record arrests and other interactions with the public, lawmakers need to step up and pay for he devices.

A 1998 law required that all drunken driving arrests in the state must be recorded by video machines installed on the dashboards of patrol cars. And most South Carolinians might assume that every patrol car in the state is equipped with dashcams.

In fact, 17 years later, many patrol cars still have no dashcams and some agencies have no dashcams at all. And that is because the money is not available to pay for them.

If lawmakers intend to make the routine use of bodycams the universal standard for law enforcement officers in the state, then legislators need to do a better job of equipping police departments and sheriff’s offices with the devices than they have with dashcams. The General Assembly needs to do more than give lip service to the proposal.

The presence of dashcams has been hit-or-miss since the mandate was enacted. Currently, the Department of Public Safety spends about $2 million a year to distribute a little more than 2,000 dashcams to local law enforcement agencies around the state. Some agencies supplement their supply of dashcams with money from federal grants.

But when police or deputies without a camera in their cars make an arrest, they often have to resort to calling in a Highway Patrol trooper to video the process.

Failing to make the use of body cameras mandatory and universal could have serious ramifications. Law enforcement agencies could raise suspicions by deciding not to equip certain officers with cameras. The public might question whether arrests made by those officers are legitimate or whether they deliberately neglected to wear cameras so their actions would not be recorded.

Law enforcement officers testify that the absence of a dashcam can doom a DUI prosecution. The same situation could occur with bodycams. They might become essential to making a case.

But that is a result, in large part, of the growing sense that law enforcement agencies need to take full advantage of the technology available to them. Bodycams can both protect police from accusations of overstepping their authority but also can protect suspects from abusive use of force under the prying eye of the camera.

This issue is being debated in the aftermath of a shocking police shooting in North Charleston in which a cop shot and killed a fleeing man who had been stopped for a broken tail light. When the officer called in to report the shooting, he said he and the man had grappled over his taser, forcing the officer to draw his gun.

That version might have gone unchallenged if a passerby had not captured the incident on his cellphone camera. The officer now has been charged with murder.

While we would like to presume that such incidents are very rare, the increasing number of examples of police brutality – particularly against black suspects – raises serious questions about police credibility. The purpose of body cameras would be to provide an objective view of an arrest, replacing the need for civilians with cellphone cameras.

State lawmakers appear ready to increase the use of bodycams by law enforcement officers. But bills making their way through both houses last week have yet to address the issue of how to pay for them.

The House bill essentially creates a committee to study the issue. The Senate could set aside some money for cameras in its 2015-16 spending plan, but would leave many of the details about implementing the plan to the state Law Enforcement Training Council, and would ask the state Criminal Justice Academy’s governing board to create guidelines for using the cameras.

We’re aware that the technology can be enormously expensive. State economic advisers estimate it would cost $21.5 million to equip all state and local law enforcement officers with cameras in the first year. Maintenance and data storage costs would cost an estimated $12 million more annually in subsequent years.

Nonetheless, lawmakers can’t get by with feel-good legislation that acknowledges the need for bodycams but fails to fund them. If lawmakers make the commitment to this program, they need to come through with a way to pay for it.

In summary

The state needs to do a better job of funding bodycams than it has with dashcams.