As your June 28 article “Body camera issue pushed to the forefront” indicates, high-profile incidents, including in South Carolina, have led to a rush to record encounters with law enforcement.
A bill to require police to wear body cameras received overwhelming support in our legislature and was signed into law. The speed with which our elected officials acted was understandable in the wake of Walter Scott’s death in April and other controversial incidents documented on video that involved use of force by the police.
Your article correctly noted that the ACLU has taken a position in favor of body cameras despite our long-standing concern about widespread government surveillance of civilians. In May, the ACLU released a model bill that strikes a balance between protecting privacy and ensuring transparency in problematic encounters involving law enforcement.
In the case of some videos that are particularly of significance to the public, transparency needs to trump privacy. Unfortunately, the South Carolina law does not ensure that. In a situation where a police officer uses deadly force against an unarmed citizen, the public has a legitimate interest in knowing what took place and how the police officers behaved.
South Carolina’s law is not the only one that needs to strike a better balance between transparency and privacy. The L.A. Police Department policy undercuts transparency by hiding virtually all body camera footage from the public. And in Florida, even the best department-level body camera policies could conflict with a new state law blocking large classes of body camera footage from disclosure in the name of protecting privacy.
If body cameras aren’t merely a public relations tool used by law enforcement but a means to foster public confidence and trust, then we need to do more to guarantee transparency in controversial encounters between police and citizens.