Mt. Pleasant taking lead on body cams

ANDREW KNAPP/STAFF All Mount Pleasant police officers are expected to be outfitted with Vievu body cameras that start recording once the officer slides down a cover to reveal the device’s lens. A town police official said he expects such cameras to more often show the good that the officers do than any bad things that do occur.

By the end of the month, Mount Pleasant hopes to become the first town in South Carolina to outfit all of its police officers with body-worn cameras after footing a $120,000 bill for the new technology.

The Mount Pleasant Police Department had planned to get 25 Vievu LE3 body-worn cameras at $820 apiece after bicycle-mounted officers and dog handlers started testing the devices early last year. That would have covered only some of its patrol officers.

But the town recently found money in its budget to cover 150 cameras, meaning all of the department’s 144-officer force — not just uniformed personnel — will get one, Inspector Chip Googe said Tuesday. The shipment arrived Friday.

“Our philosophy has always embraced the community policing concept,” Police Chief Carl Ritchie said in a statement. “This is one more step that strengthens the mutual trust we have with our citizens and offers another layer of transparency to the community we serve.”

Body cameras have been billed as a way to shed light on police-involved incidents after the April 4 shooting death of Walter Scott in North Charleston, an episode captured on cellphone video. To proponents of the technology, the case became an example of how video can help get to the bottom of such incidents.

With the move, Mount Pleasant has joined the Charleston and North Charleston police departments in creating a large-scale body camera program. The efforts have put the cities ahead of a legislative effort to require the devices on all South Carolina officers. Gov. Nikki Haley said she would sign the bill named after Scott during a ceremony Wednesday in North Charleston.

Mount Pleasant’s program covers a greater percentage of its force than others. Charleston, which has about 290 officers, started using some of its 140 cameras two weeks ago, and North Charleston is expecting 251 devices for its 340 officers.

The town’s purchase was not spawned by any incident, but by an effort to expand agency accountability and its tools for evidence-gathering, Googe said. With a lower crime rate than other area cities, Mount Pleasant typically is not the site of police-involved incidents that have captured national attention recently and put the focus on body cameras.

The department already has found the devices useful in settling a minor controversy related to Scott’s death, Googe said. After protesters on May 6 blocked traffic on the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, some complained that town officers slammed their comrades against concrete in arresting them. But Googe said body-camera footage from one of the officers showed them handling the encounter professionally.

The devices will more often show the good things that officers do, Googe said, such as when Cpl. Adam Willis pulled a man from a burning car outside a Shem Creek restaurant last month. Willis’ actions, lauded as heroic, were caught on his dashboard camera.

“The in-car cameras only go a certain distance,” Googe said. “This gives us another view of what’s going on when we’re actually on the call away from our cars. ... It will just show the truth of what happened.”

Four police supervisors trained by the Seattle manufacturer will teach other officers how to use the devices according to the town’s policy, which went into effect for the test period that started February 2014. Officers are expected to be outfitted with them June 26.

Clipped to the user’s clothing, the cameras start recording once an officer slides a cover downward, revealing the lens.

The department’s policy calls for officers to turn them on before handling violent crimes, traffic stops, field interviews, searches and other encounters that become confrontational. If it’s possible, officers should narrate the start of the video by noting the time, date and type of incident.

At the end of an officer’s shift, their footage will be uploaded to the same town storage system that houses its in-car videos, Googe said. It will be destroyed 30 days later unless it’s needed for an investigation.

In a statement Tuesday, Mayor Linda Page congratulated the Police Department.

“We are now the first municipality in South Carolina able to outfit every police officer with a body camera,” Page said. “We welcome the body cameras as another tool to promote our core values.”

Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.