Increase use of police body cameras

A Charleston police officer demonstrates a body camera. (Melissa Boughton/Staff)

It can take a long time for government agencies to get things done. The fact that requiring body cameras for police officers is taking off so quickly locally and statewide is testament to the important service they can perform.

It’s been only about six weeks since a North Charleston police officer shot Walter Scott to death while a bystander filmed it on his phone. North Charleston quickly recognized that capturing police interactions with citizens on camera can answer a lot of questions. It is purchasing 101 cameras with a state grant, and 150 more with city funds — enough for every uniformed officer. They should arrive soon.

Other jurisdictions are following suit.

Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson cautioned that cameras aren’t the be-all and end-all for judging disputes involving police actions. But she said there is value in using them, even if just to prevent a situation from escalating into a confrontation.

It is also important for the departments to have clear policies about what police interactions should not be filmed (such as interviews with rape victims or minors) and who should have access to the videos and when.

But certainly the benefit of documenting police incidents that might otherwise be misinterpreted demands that jurisdictions move forward, and that is happening.

The Charleston Police Department expects officers to be wearing cameras in May.

Charleston County Council’s Public Safety Committee Thursday approved $250,000 for cameras for the entire Charleston County Sheriff’s Office.

The Dorchester County Sheriff’s Office is field testing six body cameras and plans to buy 165 when money is available.

The sheriff’s office in Berkeley County is field-testing four body cameras.

Both the S.C. House and Senate have approved bills to provide funding for body cameras for state law enforcement officers. Differences between the two measures need to be resolved in conference committee.

And federal officials announced a $75 million grant to help police departments acquire and begin using body cameras.

Without the video, Walter Scott’s shooting death might have been interpreted differently. With it, the officer was immediately fired and charged with murder.

And with body cameras, some expect fewer blowups. Both police and suspects will be on better behavior with a lens pointed their way.

One major problem for departments wanting to use body cameras is cost. They run from about $400 to $800 each depending upon the make and model and how many a department orders. And systems need to be in place to store the videos.

But as allegations of racial profiling and unnecessary violence on the part of law enforcement simmer across the country, the more information, the better. Either those problems need to be identified and officers dealt with, or the officers need to be absolved of accusations.