The General Assembly made a wise move when it approved legislation requiring police officers throughout the state to wear body cameras.
Video recordings might make a controversial interaction between an officer and a citizen less controversial.
Body cameras might avert confrontations. People — officers and citizens — tend to behave better when they are being watched.
And it might shed light on problems that otherwise wouldn’t have been recognized. Maybe a police policy needs adjusting. Or maybe laws are not being enforced uniformly.
Gov. Nikki Haley should sign the body camera bill into law, not expecting that it will be a magic formula but because it will be a helpful tool in improving policing and making both citizens and officers safer.
And the Legislature should follow through on its assurance that a special fund will be established to help pay for the purchase of cameras and the storage and maintenance of videos. That fund must be in place by the time departments’ programs get up and running in about a year.
Legislators should also monitor the effectiveness of the law, and should be open to revisiting parts that prove lacking.
For example, the law places extensive restrictions on who can view videos and stipulates that they are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. It is indeed important to protect the privacy of citizens, but it is also important for the public to know how its law enforcement officers are handling their very difficult jobs.
For example, in April when then North Charleston Police officer Michael Slager shot Walter Scott in the back as he was fleeing a traffic stop, the officer’s initial story was different from what a passerby’s video — later posted online — showed. North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey and Police Chief Eddie Driggers responded quickly and appropriately by firing Mr. Slager and charging him with murder. But the public needs assurance that other incidents, involving any law enforcement agency, are being handled equally as well.
Police body cameras should not be considered a threat to police officers. They show mistakes, but they also show officers doing things by the book. And they could reveal how police policies put officers, and citizens, in more danger than is necessary in already dangerous situations.
In South Carolina different departments have different policies regarding shooting at fleeing vehicles. Examining the merits and demerits of the policies, substantiated by real-life video, would shine needed light on the issue.
Vidoes could help leaders establish policies that are fair and reasonable but do not so constrain officers that they are unable to protect the public, and be as safe as possible while doing so.
A recent investigation by The Washington Post revealed that in the first five months of this year, 5,099 people died after being shot. Three hundred eight-five of them were shot by police.
But then the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund reports that in 2014, 117 officers died — 48 of them shot to death.
Any of those devastating numbers is enough to justify the state adopting a body camera law to help reduce those deaths and restore public confidence in police.