Forty-two Charleston police officers started wearing cameras on their uniforms last week in the first round of the city’s $100,000 effort to outfit its force, a spokesman said Wednesday.
Attention on the devices has increased nationwide in the wake of police-involved deaths of black men that sparked racially charged protests in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City. With a bystander’s cellphone video that caught a white North Charleston officer shooting Walter Scott, a 50-year-old black man, to death in April, some placed even more value in such footage.
The Charleston Police Department’s plan, though, started before many of the high-profile deaths, police spokesman Charles Francis said. The agency recently got an initial shipment of 140 Vievu L3 cameras that it bought at $769 each. It has applied for a grant to fund 150 more.
North Charleston officials also announced after officer Michael Slager was arrested in Scott’s death that the city’s force would get 251 cameras through its own funds and a state grant. Spencer Pryor, a police spokesman for that city, said Wednesday that some of the devices had arrived but that officers wouldn’t start wearing them until a policy is finalized.
In Charleston, Police Chief Greg Mullen said in a statement Wednesday that he expects the cameras to become as commonplace for officers as the guns they carry. His agency’s policy, which was revised two weeks ago before the shipment arrived, requires officers to turn on their cameras before most encounters with members of the public.
“We started looking at body cameras two years ago because we knew it would become the wave of the future,” Mullen said. “We realized that officers around the country would be issued body cameras as they are issued a firearm.”
The moves in Charleston and North Charleston to outfit their officers will put them ahead of an effort in Columbia to bring the cameras to departments statewide.
The footage of Slager shooting a fleeing Scott helped push a legislative measure by Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, that would require body-worn cameras on most South Carolina patrol officers. The bill has garnered broad support in the General Assembly, but lawmakers continue to disagree on when footage from the cameras should be made public and on how important the videos’ release is to public oversight.
State senators who negotiated points of the bill with House members Wednesday said they might take some time to first study the cameras and whether the footage should be public. Six-month and one-year studies have been proposed. Public access was not a topic during the negotiations.
Spending more time before enacting such a law could give politicians a chance to find more money for the measure, Rep. Tommy Pope, R-York, said.
Legislators who support giving police departments broad discretion to release the footage said it’s easier to ease such restrictions later than to restore people’s privacy once their worst moments show up on YouTube.
“I had someone call me from the media and was concerned (that) this is all about the public’s right to know,” Pope said. “Well, really, it is about safety and justice.”
In Charleston, the first deployment of 42 cameras last week went to the department’s traffic unit and to other officers in the city’s central business district and on Daniel Island, the police spokesman said.
The officers were trained on how to operate the devices and on the city’s policy for using them. They will test the cameras, helping officials to make any changes before more members of the force get involved by the end of June.
“We want to see how a small number of the cameras worked before issuing them all,” Mullen said.
Charleston’s field guide on body-worn cameras requires officers to turn on their devices at the start of any incident and before most investigative encounters with residents.
They should switch off the devices if a person isn’t under arrest and doesn’t want to be filmed, or if a rape victim appears. If a situation abruptly turns confrontational, the guide states, officers shouldn’t pause to hit “record.”
Francis said that department officials realize the cameras won’t solve every issue related to strained relationships between the police and some members of the public.
But the devices could resolve some citizen complaints and help gather evidence for criminal prosecutions, Francis said.
“The benefits far outweigh the challenges,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.