December 2, 2014. Charleston, SC. By Andrew Knapp. President Barack Obama's push Monday to outfit more of the nation's police officers with video cameras in the wake of the disputed shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown came as no surprise to Charleston-area law enforcement officials, but some of the authorities doubted whether the move would make the technology any closer to reality.
The White House also announced that it wouldn't stop the flow of military surplus equipment to local police departments - a program that caught flak during officers' response to heated protests in Ferguson, Mo. - but that further review was needed.
Monday's developments drew interest among officials in the Lowcountry, where body cameras and military equipment have been points of contention in recent months.
The president proposed $263 million over three years to expand training for law enforcement and to add resources for police department reform. It includes $75 million for half the cost of 50,000 lapel-mounted cameras; state and local governments would pay for the other half. About 780,000 police officers were on the job in 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The White House has said the cameras could help resolve the type of disputes between the police and witnesses that arose in the Ferguson shooting.
The Charleston County Sheriff's Office has employed cameras on its jailers since the new Cannon Detention Center opened in 2010, and they have helped iron out the details of certain incidents. But like in-car cameras, they cannot be seen as the tell-all technology, Sheriff Al Cannon said.
Cannon said he has gauged a decent level of support among county leaders for eventual funding for cameras on patrol deputies. The agency has tested a few models, he added.
While Cannon welcomed the technology, he said the federal government's partial funding might seem trivial in the years ahead when costs mount for archiving video footage and maintaining the cameras.
He said most of the funding will have to be provided by the local governments charged with protecting their communities.
"I'm not sure this is a federal spending issue anyway," he said. "We are heading in that direction (of body cameras) in this county. ... But I think this is a good example of how there's a lot more to this than first meets the eye."
In Dorchester County, Sheriff L.C. Knight said he took it upon himself to get every patrol cruiser outfitted with a camera. The Dorchester County Sheriff's Office also has purchased three types of body cameras for testing. Deputies' favorite costs $800, and about 130 deputies would need one, Knight said.
He said that getting grants to fund the cameras is difficult but that his agency would take advantage of any federal funding.
"It's to protect the officer as well as the individual," Knight said. "Somebody makes an allegation. I'm sitting here in my chair. I don't know what happened."
Many local police departments have supported the idea of body cameras, but money is the common stumbling point. Some balked when state Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, said he would file a bill during the upcoming legislative session to require departments to buy and outfit their officers with the cameras. It wouldn't offer any funding.
But Gilliard said Monday that his planned bill has garnered support among fellow lawmakers ahead of its filing this month.
"I'm glad the president took that position," he said. "It's long overdue."
The Charleston Police Department will use about $85,000 in donations and other funding to buy 120 cameras for half of its officers. Chief Greg Mullen had said that no money in the city's budget is available to pay for the technology.
He was unavailable for comment Monday, but spokesman Charles Francis said the department likely will be interested in pursuing further grants for more cameras.
Some Charleston residents grew upset this summer after Denzel Curnell, 19, died of a gunshot wound during a struggle with a city officer. They doubted officials' account that Curnell had shot himself and remained skeptical after learning that surveillance cameras had failed to capture the incident.
At the Berkeley County Sheriff's Office, Chief Deputy Rick Ollic said his agency would struggle to comply with a law mandating the cameras.
Regarding the president's push, Ollic said the idea of the cameras is attractive. But the problem remains the money, and he didn't know whether the White House plan would offer a solution.
"We knew eventually that this would be coming," Ollic said. "If there's funding, then we'd certainly look into it. We would entertain the idea."
But employing the cameras won't be as simple as a quick trip to Best Buy.
Victoria Middleton, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, said departments will need to draft guidelines and train officers on how to use the cameras. The policies should guard people's privacy rights, Middleton said, and bar officers from turning the cameras on or off in certain situations.
"Cameras can be helpful in recording what police procedures and training go into their reactions," Middleton said. "Post-Ferguson, we're all looking at that closely. We're looking at whether some situations are being escalated unnecessarily, leading to the use of force."
Monday's announcement in Washington was part of the president's effort to focus on the "underlying issues that have been uncovered in a pretty raw way in Ferguson," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.
As part of that, Obama ordered in August a review of federal programs that provide military gear to local police after critics questioned why Missouri officers with body armor and armored trucks responded to dispel demonstrators.
Earnest said that the programs have proved useful in situations like the Boston Marathon bombing, but that the government would review how they are "implemented, structured and audited." The White House report said about 460,000 pieces of controlled property are in the hands of local police, including 92,442 small arms, 44,275 night vision devices, 5,235 Humvees, 617 mine-resistant vehicles and 616 aircraft.
Obama's staff is drafting an executive order that will require federal agencies that run the programs to work with law enforcement and civil rights and civil liberties organizations to recommend changes within four months.
Several pieces of the equipment are being used in the Lowcountry, and local officials said Monday that they plan to seek more.
Cannon's agency has procured a military helicopter, some rifles and Kevlar helmets. In turn, he said, the military has borrowed tactics used by police officers. In Afghanistan, he explained, soldiers had to build relationships with residents in hopes of rooting out their enemy - much like police officers do in American communities.
Berkeley County has rifles from the military, but Ollic said the agency is asking the government for an armored personnel carrier, too.
Knight recently acquired such a vehicle in Dorchester County, plus 30 to 45 rifles. The federal program made such acquisitions affordable, he said, and he hoped it would continue despite the review.
"I'd rather have them and not need them than need them and can't get my hands on them," Knight said.
The ACLU has scrutinized what it has called the militarization of police forces nationwide and in South Carolina. Its local director, Middleton, said using military equipment tends to create an atmosphere that makes residents feel unwelcome. She said police should ask themselves two questions when considering such new equipment.
"Is it a way to build trust?" she said. "Or is it creating a situation where you have an occupying army?"