Panel OKs $250K for deputies’ body cams

The Charleston County Council Public Safety Committee on Thursday approved $250,000 for body cameras and associated costs for the Sheriff’s Office.

Body cameras for the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office will be purchased with funds that a council committee approved Thursday.

The 270 body cameras and equipment to download and store video will be bought with up to $250,000 that the Public Safety Committee approved. That is enough cameras for the entire Sheriff’s Office.

The funds will pay for transcription and other new costs that 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson’s office will incur after deputies start using the cameras.

Sheriff Al Cannon and Wilson told the committee that the cameras, which record deputies’ interactions with the public, provide the sort of evidence that juries expect.

“The climate today dictates this technology be used,” Cannon said.

Wilson said the cameras are not a cure-all but their presence can calm a situation and prevent it from escalating into a confrontation.

“It really puts everyone on better behavior,” she said.

Evidence from body cameras can be a key component in prosecuting a case, she said.

The committee unanimously approved the body camera funding for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Deputies could be wearing the cameras by the end of the year, Cannon said.

Last week, a deputy responding to a report of a home invasion in Hollywood shot and critically wounded Bryant Heyward who placed a call to 911 asking for help because armed men were breaking into his home. Deputy Keith Tyner encountered an armed Heyward behind the house. Tyner never ordered Heyward to drop the gun he had been using to defend himself against would-be intruders. Before Tyner finished repeating “show me your hands,” he fired twice at Heyward, according to dashboard camera video. The Post and Courier analyzed the video and determined that Heyward had less than two seconds to react to Tyner’s commands.

In an interview after the council committee meeting, Cannon said, “I think that is an example of a case that might have been aided by a body-worn camera. I think it’s important to recognize that it does not necessarily capture the most important part of an incident but it may.”

There are many variables in such situations and one problem is the camera does not always see what the officer sees. There are no guarantees that a body camera will capture every element of a situation, he said.

Cannon said a detective’s recording of a conversation with Heyward in an ambulance that was transporting him to a hospital provides insight into what occurred, as does audio from the officer’s in-car camera.

“It’s not like this case is absent of any evidence of what happened, but a body-worn camera may have helped considerably,” Cannon said.

North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said in the wake of Walter Scott’s killing last month that soon every uniformed police officer on the city’s streets will be wearing a body camera.

A video taken by a bystander at the scene shows Scott was running away from Patrolman 1st Class Michael Slager, who shot at him eight times. Slager was fired from the department and charged with murder.

The city received a state grant to purchase 101 cameras, and the mayor made an executive decision to order 150 more after the Scott video surfaced.

Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen has said that sometime in May he expects all uniformed officers on Charleston streets to be wearing cameras. 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.

Cannon and Wilson also said they had been considering the need for police body cameras before the two shootings.

Dorchester County Sheriff L.C. Knight said his department is field-testing six body cameras. When the money becomes available, he plans to purchase 165 body cameras and the equipment needed to download and store video. He estimated the total cost at $165,000

Car-camera video has helped investigate and resolve public complaints against the department. A person may say that a deputy acted inappropriately but the video may show otherwise, Knight said.

“If the officer does wrong I want to know about it,” he said.

The Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office is field-testing four body cameras, according to news reports. A spokesman for the department was unavailable Thursday.

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

House members agreed Wednesday to eventually provide funding to outfit more South Carolina law enforcement officers with body cameras after renaming the measure for Scott. Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, said he pushed to rename the bill after speaking with the family of Scott, The House measure gives the state six months to study the use of police body cameras and then allowing another six months to put it into practice.

The Senate bill calls for quicker action, and the difference would have to be hammered out by a conference committee before it could be sent to Gov. Nikki Haley for her signature.

Body cameras can be a valuable tool for law enforcement but their use raises privacy concerns about widespread government surveillance, said Victoria Middleton, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina.

“They’re not a panacea,” she said.

The cameras can be turned off, she said, and they are not going to solve problems such as racial profiling. However, the cameras do provide documentation of a police-involved event, she said.

There are some situations such as interviewing a rape victim or minors where cameras should not be used, Middleton said. School resource officers also should not have them, she said.

And questions remain about who should have access to the recordings and how long they should be retained.

“There are a lot of things that need to be resolved,” Middleton said.