New body-cam law falls short

Lt. John Poole, administrative lieutenant and training and standards officer with the Chester Police Department, shows a body camera that Chester officers wear.
Lt. John Poole, administrative lieutenant and training and standards officer with the Chester Police Department, shows a body camera that Chester officers wear. aburriss@heraldonline.com

Body cameras worn by law enforcement officers have the potential to provide an accurate, impartial record of interactions between officers and the public. But the videos won’t do much good if the public never sees them.

Gov. Nikki Haley signed a bill into law Wednesday that gives police agencies about a year to create policies regarding the use of body cameras, which will be reviewed by a group made up of prosecutors and law enforcement personnel. The policies are expected to cover which officers will wear the equipment, when the cameras should and should not be turned on, whether victims must give permission to be recorded and how long the videos should be stored.

The bill-signing ceremony took place in North Charleston, site of the police shooting that helped spur lawmakers to pass a body-cam bill. The bill became a priority after a cell-phone video taken by a passerby showed 50-year-old Walter Scott being shot by a policeman several times in the back when he attempted to flee after a routine traffic stop.

The new law creates a special fund to provide money to law enforcement agencies to buy body cameras for nearly all officers in the state and to cover the cost of storing data and maintaining the equipment. Sponsors believe the year-long process will give lawmakers time to find the money.

Unfortunately, the bill also heavily restricts when videos from the cameras can be made public. Some supporters said they would rather err on the side of caution rather than invade the privacy of an innocent person whose actions recorded on a body cam could end up going viral on the Internet.

But this cautious approach could blunt the effectiveness of using body cams in the first place. The primary function of these devices is not simply to record what happens when officers interact with citizens but also to deter bad behavior on the part of both.

Body cams could be particularly effective at curbing police brutality. It is questionable, for example, that the officer who shot Walter Scott would have been indicted for murder if his actions had not been caught on camera.

Advocates for making the body camera footage a part of the public record worked closely with a Senate panel to work out a reasonable compromise. The bill sent to the floor of the Senate limited access to data recorded in private places, such as a suspect’s home, but allowed any footage recorded in public places to be open under the Freedom of Information Act.

But both the House and Senate versions of the bill that emerged specified that body camera footage is not part of the public record and not subject to FOIA requirements. In other words, police and prosecutors would have complete discretion over who gets to see the footage.

That falls well short of a system that would deter officers from overstepping their authority and mistreating suspects. Only public oversight can achieve that.

As an impartial record of events, body cam footage could capture a police officer using unwarranted force against a suspect. But the footage also could protect the officer against false accusations of police brutality.

Unfortunately, body cams won’t provide real oversight of police if fellow officers are allowed to screen what is shown to the public.

We understand that there are instances in which the privacy of individuals should be protected. But what occurs in public – actions that ostensibly could be filmed by any passerby with a cell-phone camera – ought to be part of the public record.

We hope this will be part of the discussion as body-cam policies evolve over the next year. Otherwise, taxpayers could be spending a lot of money for cameras that do little but provide a false sense of public vigilance.

In summary

Police body cams are supposed to protect both police and suspects from false accusations. But for the system to work, the public must have access to footage.