The shooting death of Walter Scott in North Charleston last Saturday already has accelerated an important policy change to heighten police accountability — the decision to provide body cameras to all policemen in the city. That development, announced by Mayor Keith Summey on Wednesday, would sharply reduce uncertainty about police misconduct in the future.
This question was raised in the aftermath of the Scott shooting: Absent the video of the shooting, would there ever have been an arrest of police officer Michael Slager? Certainly there was little to indicate that North Charleston officials initially had doubts about the officer’s account of the shooting.
Perhaps discrepancies would have become evident during the independent investigation of the shooting by the State Law Enforcement Division. But nothing could be as compelling as the eyewitness video shot with a cell phone by a passerby.
Uncertainty would be largely eliminated by the use of body cameras during police calls. The effectiveness of video has long been evident with car cams on patrol cars used in traffic stops. (For a recent example, consider the early morning arrest of then Berkeley County Sheriff Wayne DeWitt on charges of DUI in December.)
Those cameras benefit both police and suspects by providing a clear record of events related to the questioning, apprehension and arrest of suspects. In some instances, they have provided clear evidence when police cross the line. In others, the video record has served effectively to repudiate complaints of police mistreatment. In North Charleston, where police have been accused of racial profiling and harassing citizens, such clarity would be especially beneficial.
Unobtrusive body cameras would be more useful for purposes of accountability than mounted streetside cameras that stream video of citizens who are mainly going about their business. Certainly, they should be less intrusive of privacy, while actually safeguarding the public interest by ensuring that law enforcement proprieties are being observed. Body cameras also would serve as a restraint on police misbehavior.
Mayor Summey said that state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, helped get the city a grant to pay for 110 body cameras. Meanwhile the mayor said he “made an executive decision” to order another 150 cameras to ensure their availability to all city police in uniform. Good call.
The mayor cautioned that police will have to be instructed as to their operation and that a protocol will have to be developed for their use. So the cameras won’t immediately come online.
The universal use of body cameras by North Charleston police should be viewed with interest by law enforcement officials across the state. It should also get the attention of legislators who are considering a bill sponsored by Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, and Sen. Kimpson, mandating their use.
No better argument could be made for their use than the terrible events of last Saturday, so chillingly recorded on video.