Senate panel advances body cam bill

A S.C. Senate panel approved a plan requiring all patrol officers in the state to wear cameras.

COLUMBIA — A Senate committee voted Tuesday to require all patrol officers in South Carolina to wear body cameras, but a House panel wants a trial run first because of the cost and privacy concerns.

Lawmakers have pushed cameras to the top of their priorities this session after the shooting April 4 of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, by a white North Charleston police officer accused of murder because of a passerby’s cellphone video of the killing.

Under the Senate bill, the state would establish a fund to help pay for the cameras — although how the cost would be split with municipalities and local law enforcement agencies hasn’t been determined. The price tag for equipping every officer in the state with a body camera is estimated at $30 million, not including annual storage and maintenance costs.

Funding for the cameras will be decided as part of upcoming budget discussions, said Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, adding the state isn’t likely to cover the full cost of equipping every cop.

For a bill to pass this year, the Senate would need to approve a measure by May 1, said Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin, R-Pickens.

Questions remain, though, about protecting the privacy of people who are not accused of crimes, witnesses and others who might be recorded by the cameras, which officers should wear them and when they should be turned on.

The Senate and House proposals leave answering many of the questions to the state’s Law Enforcement Training Council, which would set guidelines for how departments should use cameras and give the final approval on their policies. The House Judiciary Committee opted for a six-month trial run in six cities and three counties.

The training council would then come up with recommendations and suggestions for implementing statewide policies.

Despite the Senate committee’s unanimous vote Tuesday, supporters say they expect the measure will face changes on the Senate floor as more senators wrangle with the questions cameras pose.

“There certainly is a consequence when all parts of our life is recorded,” said Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield.

As it’s written now, recordings wouldn’t be subject to open-records laws if they are taken in a “private place,” such as a home, Hutto said.

That also remains a top concern for law enforcement advocates. The South Carolina Press Association, which represents The Post and Courier and other media outlets, has said the existing open records laws address many law enforcement concerns.

“If an officer has to come into my home and take a statement from me, I’m a witness ... I don’t want my house and my belongings to be subject to FOIA,” said Jarrod Bruder, executive director of the South Carolina Sheriffs’ Association. “They shouldn’t be on YouTube for the whole world to see.”

The proposals were filed in the Legislature months ago, but hadn’t been taken up by anything but subcommittees when Scott was shot to death after being pulled over for a broken taillight by patrol officer Michael Slager, who has since been fired and arrested.

The shooting prompted calls by black lawmakers and rights activists to take up and pass the bills as quickly as possible.

“But for the shooting, I do not believe we would be where we are today,” said Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston. “If we can get this done, this will underscore that Mr. Scott, in addition to all the other things that have come out of this, did not die in vain.”