N. Charleston officers soon will wear body cameras

North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said Wednesday that soon all officers in the city's police department will have body cameras.

North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said Wednesday that soon every uniformed police officer on the city’s streets will be wearing a body camera.

Summey’s announcement comes in the wake of one of the city’s officers, Patrolman 1st Class Michael T. Slager, being charged with murder in the death of Walter L. Scott. A video taken by a bystander at the scene shows Scott was running away when Slager shot at him eight times.

Summey said the city received a state grant to purchase 101 cameras. And he made an executive decision Wednesday morning to order 150 more. The city will train officers how to properly use the cameras after they arrive, Summey said.

And the city already is working on creating a policy for the proper use of the cameras, he said. “We have already been drafting a policy through the police department for our legal department to look at and make sure it meets muster.”

The use of body cameras has been increasing nationwide in recent years.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest cited statements by investigators as well as research indicating that use of body cameras leads to a decline in the number of violent police confrontations.

The Obama administration earlier this year announced a $75 million grant to help police departments acquire and begin using body cameras.

Victoria Middleton, executive director of the ACLU of South Carolina, has said body cameras can protect both a citizen’s and officer’s rights if they are used appropriately. But cities must have solid policies in place before they begin using them.

She has concerns about their use, including: cameras being used in private places, who would have access to the recordings, and officers having the power to turn them on and off at will.

Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said that sometime in May he expects all uniformed officers on Charleston streets to be wearing the cameras, as well. But, he said, the body camera plan has been in the works for months, and isn’t related to the North Charleston shooting.

He has ordered about 130 body cameras, which he expects officers to begin using as soon as they arrive.

When an officer completes a shift, he or she will turn over the body camera to an officer on the next shift.

Mullen said he eventually wants to purchase a total of 290 cameras, so each officer can have his or her own device.

But the cameras are expensive. The 130 cameras cost about $100,000 — $30,000 came from a federal grant; $55,00 from the Police Fund, a citizens fundraising group; and the rest from drug asset forfeitures.

Mullen said the city already has a use policy in place. Officers wearing a body camera must keep them on during “traffic stops, people stops or calls for service involving a criminal offense, or any field encounter,” he said.

But they can be turned off in certain circumstances, he said. For instance, the camera doesn’t have to be on if a person calls an officer to his or her home to give information, Mullen said.

He also said that tapes must be stored for 14 days for non-criminal offenses. For criminal offenses, the storage time varies by state rules, he said.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said he also hopes by the end of the year to purchase the additional 150 cameras.

The technology is an important part of law enforcement work today, Riley said. “You preserve the real event, and that benefits everybody.”

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich.