The Charleston Police Department (CPD) seeks City of Charleston tax dollars to expand its body camera program. The Charleston City Council must ensure strong policies governing the use of body cameras by CPD before providing CPD with additional revenue for its body camera program. Without strong policies, body cameras become just another tool to hide law enforcement abuses. Specifically, the Charleston City Council must ensure CPD’s body camera policy includes the following mandates:
- Requirement that body cameras be turned on whenever a law enforcement officer is responding to a call for service or at the initiation of any other law enforcement or investigatory encounter between a law enforcement officer and a member of the public (with certain exceptions), and that the recording is not discontinued until the encounter has concluded and the officer leaves the scene.
- That appropriate disciplinary action is taken against an officer who fails to follow recording and retention requirements.
- A prohibition against recording First Amendment protected activity, including peaceful protests, unless related to a call for service or other law enforcement action.
- Beyond what is mandated by state law, all videos depicting any police use of force or alleged police misconduct should be released to the public upon request; where a video depicts a member of the public being killed, shot by a firearm, or grievously injured by an officer, such video should be released within five days of a request.
- That no law enforcement officer may review or receive an accounting of any body camera footage until they have completed their initial reports, statements, or interviews (with certain exceptions).
- Comprehensive, uniform retention requirements that clarifies what happens to the video/audio from the body cams, where it is stored, how long it is stored, and who has access to it.
- Video redaction may be used to protect privacy, but only where the redaction does not interfere with a viewer’s ability to fully, completely, and accurately comprehend the events captured on the video footage.
Body cameras must be a tool to enhance law enforcement accountability, not hide law enforcement abuses. In the five years since South Carolina passed body camera legislation, South Carolina law enforcement have turned a tool sold to the public as a way to strengthen law enforcement accountability and community trust of law enforcement into a tool to shield law enforcement officers from accountability. Under the law, “[d]ata recorded by a body camera is not a public record subject to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.” Because of this exemption, law enforcement get to decide what video footage they want to release or keep secret. CPD has chosen to follow the State’s decision to shield body camera footage from public disclosure. When law enforcement have the power to protect themselves instead of serving the public interest, they undermine the very purpose of deploying body cams in the first place. Setting the right balance between privacy and transparency in public access is tricky, but some situations are clear: when the video captures a critical incident (such as a serious use of force), when there are allegations of misconduct regarding the interaction captured on video, or when the subject of the video requests it, camera video should be released. The Charleston City Council must ensure body cameras are a tool to increase CPD transparency and accountability.
Current CPD policy undermines the integrity of the investigatory process. CPD policy allows officers to review their body camera footage prior to preparing their reports or statement of events, including in instances where there is a “hearing or other disciplinary matter involving the officer.” Officers involved in a critical incident like a shooting or facing charges of misconduct should not be permitted to view footage of the incident before making a statement or writing an initial report. Police do not show video evidence to other subjects or witnesses before taking their statements, and for good reasons. First, cognitive science has demonstrated that watching video of an incident actually changes a person’s memory. Second, persons intent on providing misleading statements would be advantaged to know what falsities would and would not be disproven by body camera footage. Officers should watch the video after their initial statement and then have the chance to offer additional information and context. Because they may not remember a stressful incident perfectly, omissions or inconsistencies in their initial account shouldn’t be grounds for discipline without evidence they intended to mislead. This would provide the fullest picture of what happened without tainting officers’ initial recollection or creating the perception that body cameras are being used to cover up misconduct rather than to hold officers accountable.
Body Cameras are not a solution to police violence. Following the murder of Walter Scott by the North Charleston Police Department five years ago, South Carolina lawmakers passed legislation requiring all law enforcement officers to wear body cameras (funding contingent). But, as we have seen across the country, the introduction of police body cameras has not stopped police violence. For example, on March 31 the Charleston Police Department CPD, along with a number of additional South Carolina law enforcement agencies, engaged in mass police violence against people peacefully protesting against police violence. The presence of body cameras did not stop CPD officers from engaging in this brutality. The only way to reduce police violence and make our communities safer and stronger is to reduce the size, scope, and role of law enforcement and invest in our communities. Can body cameras, if governed by proper policies, improve police transparency and accountability? Perhaps, to a modest degree. Can they bring about significant improvements to the inequities and violence that plague modern policing? No.
Charleston City Council members must ensure that CPD’s body camera policy strengthens law enforcement transparency and accountability.
The ACLU’s model body camera policy can be found at: https://www.aclu.org/other/model-act-regulating-use-wearable-body-cameras-law-enforcement.