N. Chas. cellphone video spurs Senate body cam measure

On Wednesday, a Senate panel unanimously approved a bill that would require all law enforcement officers in South Carolina to wear the cameras.

COLUMBIA — A week after the release of a cellphone video showing a North Charleston police officer shooting an unarmed man in the back, a Senate panel voted Wednesday to require every law enforcement officer in the state to wear a body camera while on duty.

Introduced by Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, the bill initially was opposed by several law enforcement agencies because of the high cost, estimated at more than $21 million.

But the opposition evaporated after millions around the world viewed a video recorded by a passerby of white police officer Patrolman 1st Class Michael Slager firing eight shots at a fleeing 50-year-old black man, Walter Scott, hitting him five times and killing him.

Slager has since been fired and arrested on a murder charge. Slager said he pulled Scott over April 4 because his car had a broken brake light and claimed afterward that he shot Scott in self-defense after Scott ran and the two struggled over the officer’s stun gun.

After Slager’s arrest, North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said the city would be equipping each of its officers with a body camera. Summey said the city received a state grant last year to purchase 101 cameras, and he made the decision last week to order 150 more.

Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said that by May he expects all uniformed officers on Charleston streets to be wearing the cameras, as well. The body camera plan has been in the works for months, he said, and isn’t related to the North Charleston shooting.

He has ordered about 130 body cameras, which he expects officers to begin using as soon as they arrive.

Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, said the state will need to find the cash to pay for the requirement so that municipalities, police departments and other agencies aren’t stuck with the added cost. To do otherwise would be unacceptable burden, he said.

“At the end of the day, what we’ve got to say is, how much does it cost for us not to have them,” said Malloy, adding that the Senate has time to add it to the budget.

Malloy’s bill was approved unanimously by a subcommittee and will now go to the full Senate Judiciary Committee next week.

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After Scott’s shooting, the House sponsor, Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, and a Senate co-sponsor, Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, called on lawmakers to quit delaying action on the body-camera requirement.

“Over the last couple of days, the world has witnessed what has happened in South Carolina,” Kimpson said Wednesday. “I am pleased that we are making progress in this regard, but let’s not forget that this issue arose because of the shooting of an unarmed African-American citizen.”

During the Senate hearing, Rep. Justin Bamberg, D-Bamberg, an attorney who is representing Scott’s family, said he wonders “where we would be” without the video.

Bamberg said body cameras are needed because “truth and justice should not depend on the courage of someone to be willing to stand up and say to the world, ‘This is what I saw and this is what happened.’ ”

Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.