Examining the transparency of South Carolina’s body camera law

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - In 2015, with great ceremony, then Gov. Nikki Haley signed the body camera bill into law in North Charleston.

A few months earlier in North Charleston a bystander’s cell phone captured Officer Michael Slager on video shooting a retreating Walter Scott.

That death prompted South Carolina lawmakers to pass a bill making it mandatory for all law enforcement officers to wear body cameras. Officials were optimistic that the electronic third eye would create a layer of transparency and build trust between the community and officers.

However, one of the original sponsors of the bill, state Sen. Marlon Kimpson admits the law, as it was written, does not go far enough.

“For example there is no penalty associated with the deletion or the misappropriation of the video due to negligence or gross negligence," he said."There is no requirement that the body camera be ‘on’ under certain circumstances.”

Kimpson says getting the bill passed with bipartisan support was a herculean task, and admits that compromise was necessary.

“Politics is the art of the possible, not the art of the perfect,” quipped Kimpson.

He has filed a bill to amend the current law to address those issues.

Another glaring issue is who gets access to the video. Under the current law, police are required to wear the cameras, but the law allows for each department the discretion to release the video if they choose to.

The law says that police must release the video to other law enforcement agencies, anyone who appears in the footage or a parent or legal guardian of a minor or incapacitated person and their attorney.

The person accused of committing a crime can have access to it if it is relevant to their case.

It can be used in civil lawsuits if it is relevant to a civil case, and if the person’s property has been seized or damaged during the incident, they have a right to the recording. Once these people have access to the video they are free to share it with anyone they so please.

Unlike public records and dash cam video, body worn camera footage is not included under the Freedom of Information Act, which in some cases makes it difficult for the media and taxpayers to view it.

“I was not supportive of that provision excepting it for FOIA,” Kimpson said. “I believe the news media should have a right to know and importantly the news media communicates with the public on a real time basis. But in an effort to get the bill done…we had to compromise.”

Florida, known as the “Sunshine State”, also has sunshine laws. That is, laws designed to ensure that public records throughout the state are accessible to the people that includes body camera footage.

Florida State Rep. Shevrin Jones helped sponsor a body worn camera bill in Florida.

“Once we start getting to this place where we allow the agency to make these decisions you move into territory that continues to bring distrust between community and law enforcement,” said Jones. “Only way we’re going to clear that up is everyone open up being transparent and showing there’s nothing to hide.”

The body worn cameras are not mandatory in Florida, but if an agency opts to use them the footage can be obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

Jones says that’s the way it should be.

“It’s only right that the community gets a chance to see it because at the end of the day, the community is affected by that one way or another," he said.

Some Lowcountry law enforcement agencies will allow members of the media to come in and watch the body camera video, but they will not allow the press to have copies of it.

Other agencies don’t have a problem releasing the video, even though they are not required by law to do so.

Recently, the Berkeley County Sheriff's Office released body cam footage of an encounter inside a home in which a man was tased, wrestled to the ground and tasered.

Sheriff Duane Lewis posted the video on social media.

Sen. Kimpson says he will continue to try and improve the bill but says he’s not very optimistic about the likelihood of anything changing without public outcry.

“We need to hear from the people” Kimpson said. “The taxpayers you refer to need to petition the government that this is an issue. I’ve not heard a lot about this issue from people.”

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