The State | By John Monk

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday afternoon unanimously passed out a bill that, if passed by Legislature and approved by the governor, would require state and local police officers in South Carolina to wear body cameras.

The bill now goes to the Senate floor for consideration. If passed into law – and with proper funding – body cameras might start to be implemented in state and local law agencies around the state sometime next year. Both bill shave been fast-tracked since and April 4 citizen video captured a North Charleston police officer shooting an unarmed African-American man in the back.

Within an hour, the House Judiciary Committee passed its own version of a police body camera bill. It basically approves the concept of police body cameras, but calls for a law enforcement study committee to examine existing practices in the 20-odd S.C. law agencies that now use body cameras and report back to the General Assembly in six months.

The Senate bill also calls for a detailed study by a panel of top law enforcement officials, but it would let that group write and implement regulations for implementation without coming back to the General Assembly.

Both bills now head to the floor of their respective chambers. Both may be amended. Senators said they will seek funding – estimated at more than $21 million the first year – through an amendment in the Senate Finance Committee. Where the money would come from has not been determined. The House bill contains no funding provisions.

Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland and a House Judiciary member, said he preferred the Senate version because, he said, the House version unnecessarily delays implementation.

"We absolutely can’t keep kicking the can down the road,” Rutherford said. He said he hopes the bill will be amended on the House floor to more match the Senate version.

Jerrod Bruder, executive director of the S.C. Sheriffs Association, represents a coalition of state and national law enforcement groups that have been working on the Senate bill, which also includes a requirement that a law enforcement task force study the best ways of handling various police body camera issues.

Bruder said his group – which besides the sheriffs’ association includes the Fraternal Order of Police, the State Law Enforcement Division, S.C. Law Enforcement Officers Association and the S.C. Police Chiefs’ Association – supports the Senate version but doesn’t oppose the House bill.

However, several House Judiciary members said they preferred their bill.

Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Richland, said the House bill requirement that a law enforcement task force study current practices and come back to the General Assembly with a report will “give us feedback on how best to” implement the cameras. A delay, Finlay said, “is the unfortunate side effect but my hope is that we do a good job with it.”

Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, said while, “We’d all like to move forward with it,” the issues presented by body cameras – such as invasion of privacy – are so important and complex a study with a report back to the General Assembly is the best way to do it.

“What we don’t want to do is hurt the very people we are trying to protect,” Quinn said.

In a robust discussion in the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday, senators supporting the bill said it strikes a balance between law enforcement, victims’ concerns for keeping certain videos confidential and press groups’ push for transparency.

The bill would make police videos taken in public places subject to the S.C. Freedom of Information Act; videos taken in private places, such as homes, would not be.

“We tried to strike a balance between the public’s right to know and a person’s right to privacy,” said Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg.

Hutto said he expected further amendments addressing the public-private parts of the bill once the bill reaches the Senate floor.

Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said he still had concerns that too much privacy might be violated. “I’m not sold yet.”

Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, the bill’s primary sponsor, said, “By and large, I think you are going to find out how good a job officers are doing.”

Malloy introduced his bill in December, and although a Senate panel held hearings on it, there was not a significant push for passage until a video shot by a bystander captured the April 4 shooting of an unarmed black man running away from a police officer in North Charleston.

“North Charleston brought this to global attention,” Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, told the Senate Judiciary panel Tuesday.

Bill Rogers, S.C. Press Association executive director, warned that any final version of the body camera bill needs to have transparency standards. “For oversight, there has to be public access,” he said.

Who is shaping the body camera bill?

  • Law enforcement groups. They include the Fraternal Order of Police, SLED, the S.C. Law Enforcement Officers Association and the S.C. Sheriffs’ Association. They are advocating for guidelines governing the use and funding of body cameras.
  • Transparency groups. These include the S.C. Press Association, which is seeking to classify body camera video as data subject to the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.
  • Victims’ rights and privacy advocates. These include the ACLU and the S.C. Crime Victims Council.