March 11, 2015. Columbia. Free Times. By Eva Moore. With police violence against citizens getting more attention, the South Carolina Senate is considering a bill that would require police to wear body cameras.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Marlon Kimpson and several others, is simple: It would require all state and local police to have their cameras on at all times. But the broad-brush approach is getting criticism both from cops and from those concerned about cops’ use of power.
Perhaps the simplest argument against cameras, say critics on both sides, is that they don’t necessarily stop violence. The death of Eric Garner, who was killed last July when a New York police officer put him in a chokehold, was caught on camera by an onlooker — but the officer wasn’t indicted. When a South Carolina Highway Patrol officer shot an unarmed man last September at a gas station, the cop’s dash cam video caught the incident, including the man lying on the ground apologizing after being shot.
But, says Kimpson, a video recording can help sort out the truth.
“We have too many instances where there is disputed testimony and people have suffered serious bodily injury and sometimes death at the hands of law enforcement,” he said at a Senate subcommittee hearing March 4. In the case of the Highway Patrol shooting, Kimpson said, “Guess what? That gentleman is in jail and he has lost his job.”
However, several law enforcement officials — even from departments that are acquiring body worn cameras — urged lawmakers to scrap the bill altogether. A broad mandate doesn’t make sense, they said.
“When you talk about all officers should wear a camera, that includes an undercover officer … obviously that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” said Jarrod Bruder, executive director of the South Carolina Sheriffs Association. “Several of our victim advocates are class 1 officers. Working with a victim, a very traumatic situation, they would be required to video that incident.”
Law enforcement is also concerned about the cost. Bruder said it would cost half a million dollars up front to equip the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department with cameras, with another half million a year for data storage and upkeep. Major Michael Nunn of the Florence County Sheriff’s Department said cameras for his department would cost $304,000, plus an additional $100,000 per year for storage.
Cameras also have limits, Nunn noted.
“What the camera captures depends on where it’s positioned,” Nunn said. “What might look like a blow to the head may well be a blow to the hand.”
And as government records, presumably those video recordings would be open to the public.
“Every encounter with every officer will immediately become public record subject to the Freedom of Information Act,” Nunn said. “Every traffic stop. Every interview. Subject to being on the evening news or just susceptible to the curious person.”
Meanwhile, a key civil liberties group is urging lawmakers to move carefully, though it’s generally supportive of their effort.
“Interestingly, some of our concerns overlap with some of law enforcement’s concerns,” said Victoria Middleton, executive director of the ACLU of South Carolina, in a conversation with Free Times. The key, she says, is to balance accountability of police officers with privacy.
“The ACLU has really taken a hard look at this, because in general we’re not supportive of wholesale government surveillance of citizens — walking down the street, meeting in a park for a political rally, or whatever,” she says. But the benefits of cameras may outweigh those concerns, Middleton says: They can “serve as a check against the abuse of power by police officers” and also protect police who are falsely accused of wrongdoing.
The cameras need to be turned off sometimes, though, like when officers are in people’s homes, the ACLU believes. Police should redact videos by blurring out non-relevant people and sections before releasing recordings under FOIA. And they shouldn’t retain recordings for more than a few weeks unless the video is flagged.
Middleton also doesn’t think cops should have to be subject to constant surveillance.
“For a police officer, they shouldn’t have to be 24-7 monitored,” she says. “I mean, they might want to sit in the patrol car and complain about the chief.”
Above all, Middleton warns, body-worn cameras aren’t enough.
“It is not a silver bullet,” she says. “It is not a panacea. We also need to invest in more training. Police need to know when and when not to escalate things with citizens. The camera alone, whether it’s a dash cam or body cam, is not going to change that.”
The subcommittee will meet again March 11.