Body cameras on every officer advances with approval of guidelines

Summerville Police Officer R.M. Medlock wears a body camera that is activates during traffic stops. Guidelines were approved Friday for local departments to develop policies leading to every officer in the state being equipepd with a body camera.

COLUMBIA — Top state law enforcement officials unanimously approved guidelines Friday for the first state law mandating that law enforcement officers be equipped with body cameras.

The guidelines must be followed by local law enforcement agencies in developing local policies to be submitted to be submitted to the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy by March.

“Uniformed officers whose primary function is to answer calls for service and interact with the public, or officers who have a reasonable expectation that they will” respond to calls are required to wear body cameras, the guidelines read.

“They can put them on everybody, but what we’re trying to cover is the intent of the Legislature when the bill was written and I think we accomplished that,” State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel said.

Cameras must be activated when officers arrive at a call or initiate any law enforcement or investigative encounter between an officer and a member of the public.

Officers are not obligated to obtain consent from victims or witnesses, but will have discretion on whether to turn the camera on or off. Language added Friday require officers to declare on camera or in writing why they discontinued recording.

The guidelines were crafted during four meetings since Gov. Nikki Haley signed the first law of its kind in the country six months ago. Proposed by Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Hartsville, the bill had languished before the shooting of a black motorist, Walter Scott, by a white North Charleston police officers facing a murder charge. The shooting was recorded by a passer-by on his cellphone.

“I think body cameras will serve us well,” Malloy said Thursday. “They will end up protecting the officer and citizen and it’s going to protect the truth.”

Under the law, footage will not be subject to Freedom of Information Act disclosure. Footage will only be released at the discretion of SLED, the attorney general or a circuit solicitor.

Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association said the FOIA exemption would allow law enforcement to cover up incriminating incidents that could change the outcome of an incident.

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“I think any time there is a police shooting the video should be made public and that’s for the credibility of the police and to withhold that is just outrageous,” Rogers said. “If you look at what happened in Chicago, a kid was shot 16 times and they withheld it for over a year. That’s what can happen if the public doesn’t have access to these videos in a timely manner.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Larry Martin, R-Pickens, prefiled a bill this week that would allow police dashcam video to be made public unless officials can make a clear and convincing case to a judge that disclosing the video or audio recording would harm the agency.

Full implementation of the body camera law will vary by agency, dependent upon funding. The General Assembly provided $2.4 million in annual funding and a one-time appropriation of $1 million to reimburse agencies for purchasing the equipment and training. Estiamtes had put the cost of equipping every officer in the state with a body camera at more than $21 million.

Charleston and North Charleston police departments have already committed to buying the cameras and can apply for reimbursement.

Reach Gavin Jackson at 843-708-1830.