COLUMBIA — A bill requiring police officers to wear body cameras got final approval from the Senate on Wednesday, heading to the House just weeks after a North Charleston cop was charged with murder in the fatal shooting of Walter Scott.
The bill passed 41-3 after lengthy debate about privacy concerns that the cameras raise. Senators went back and forth, looking for a balance between police transparency and privacy.
As it stands, the legislation would limit the public’s access to the video footage. Video would only be available to the public when a complaint is filed against an officer. Crime victims and lawyers with cases dealing with the video also would have access. The public, including the press, would not have access to the majority of body camera videos.
The vote keeps the bill alive this year, meeting a key procedural deadline this week.
The bill would set up a fund to pay for body cameras and give state law enforcement officials six months to work out the details of how they should be used. The Senate’s budget-writing committee has set aside $3.4 million to fund it, enough to buy 2,000 cameras and store their data. Buying cameras for the roughly 12,000 law enforcement officers in the state would cost an estimated $30 million, not including data storage and maintenance.
Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin, R-Pickens, urged the Legislature to establish a statewide policy on how body cameras should be used and when footage should be released. Many departments already have cameras, and more — including North Charleston — are buying them, making for a “hodgepodge of policies and guidelines.”
“The train’s leaving very quickly,” Martin said.
The House is also set to vote on a body cameras bill this week, but its proposal effectively lets lawmakers wait to decide how to handle the devices.
It calls for state law enforcement officials to study agencies that already have cameras and make recommendations on statewide policies.
Body camera bills were proposed in the House and Senate early in this year’s session, but neither had advanced past subcommittees before North Charleston police officer Michael Slager was captured on video shooting Scott in the back earlier this month as he ran away.
The shooting reignited a national debate about body cameras and spurred lawmakers into action.
Congress also is considering making body cameras a requirement.
Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, wasn’t fazed by the issues raised by his colleagues, adding that there are “always bumps along the road” with important legislation. And this bill is a major piece of legislation that will transform law enforcement, giving all parties access to the facts, he said.
“We know that historically, eyewitness testimony has proven to be not the most reliable form of evidence,” Kimpson said. “And oftentimes there are no witnesses. Now this state will have a comprehensive policy to allow us to have access to the true facts.”
Kimpson, along with Sen. Paul Thurmond, R-Charleston, was among the first to become a co-sponsor of the bill. Thurmond, a former prosecutor and now defense attorney, said he’s seen how law enforcement officers and defendants can benefit from video.
“This is a scenario that is really a fair way to address some people’s concerns,” Thurmond said. “It works both ways. It’s going to be an excellent tool to address those who are not acting appropriately, whether they are not in the law enforcement side or on the law enforcement side.”