Charleston police officers soon could be wearing body cameras to record all of the their interactions with citizens, a practice that has sparked privacy concerns with the American Civil Liberties Union.
Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen made a presentation on a plan to eventually provide the wearable video devices to all police officers to City Council's Public Safety Committee Thursday. He has applied for a $30,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to launch the program, he said. If he gets the grant, he will use the money to purchase the first 21 body cameras and begin equipping his officers with the surveillance technology that is growing more popular nationwide.
There will be a public hearing on the matter at the July 15 City Council meeting, said Councilwoman Kathleen Wilson, who is chairwoman of the Public Safety Committee.
Mullen said he's pretty sure the department will get the grant, and that officers will begin using the cameras - which cost about $1,310 a piece - by the end of the year.
Officers clip the devices to their shirts in the center of their chests, he said. They are more effective than dashboard-mounted cameras because they move with the officer and record everything in front of him or her.
"It's the wave of the future," Mullen said. He predicts that five years from now, officers around the country will be issued body cameras just as they are issued guns today.
He also said that the first officers to use the cameras will be those working in the city's entertainment district, which includes the popular nightlife areas around the Market, and along East Bay, Meeting and King streets.
The city already has dashboard-mounted cameras in its police cars, and a series of safety and security cameras throughout the city, Mullen said. But the body cameras would improve officers' testimony in court, help with investigations, and provide mutual accountably involving community concerns about officers' conduct.
Before the department begins using the cameras, it will create a policy for how they are to be used, he said. When it has a draft policy, it will get input from the ACLU and other community groups, he said.
Victoria Middleton, executive director of the ACLU of South Carolina, said "a body-mounted camera can protect both a citizen's rights and an officer's rights if it's used appropriately."
But she has concerns about the cameras being used in homes and other private places, and who will have access to the recordings. She's also concerned about officers having the power to turn the cameras on and off at will. "We could have a selective recording," she said.
Before the city begins using the cameras, she said, it needs to have solid policies and procedures in place. Without them, "citizens could be the victims of creative editing."
Mullen said the department eventually needs to purchase 110 cameras for its 450 officers. It will purchase more as funds become available.
Body cameras are not widely used in the Lowcountry. Only the town of Summerville uses them on a limited basis.
Summerville Police Capt. Jon Rogers said two officers who patrol on motorcycles have been using them for years. The officers can't mount recording devices on their vehicles, he said, but the body cameras allow them to record interactions with citizens the way dashboard cameras allow officers who patrol in cars. "They work great," he said.
Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich.
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