It will take about $1.2 million to outfit the Richland County Sheriff’s Department with body-worn cameras, and it’s unclear where that money will come from.
But come it must, after state legislators mandated cameras for all South Carolina police agencies.
The Richland County department has been researching body cams for about three years for its 600 deputies, Sheriff Leon Lott said. Richland County has a draft of rules for body cams and, along with other law enforcement agencies throughout the state, has until March 7 to submit its policy for approval to the S.C. Law Enforcement Training Council.
“It’s not just as simple as going out and buying a camera and putting it on a deputy,” Lott said. “There’s a lot more that goes into that and that’s where most of the costs come from. Probably the cheapest part is the actual camera itself.”
Those other costs include personnel to sort through footage and storage space to maintain the footage. Legislators put $3.4 million in a camera fund, with $2.4 million of that being recurring money, according to published reports. But Lott says that’s a drop in the bucket compared to what it will take to get every agency in South Carolina outfitted.
“If they were really serious about it, they would have fully funded this,” he said.
Lott intends to ask Richland County Council for the money.
Who sees the footage?
South Carolina law says that state and local agencies are not required to implement body cams until the agency has received full funding.
The Kershaw County Sheriff’s Office was able to get ahead of the curve, outfitting 45 deputies with body cams in July. The agency made the purchase after low gas prices left a surplus in the budget for its police cars.
“It’s an enhancement of what the officer does,” Lt. Danny Templar said. “It allows him to report things, it protects the officer – and in some cases, if he’s not doing what he should be doing, it’s going to work against him.”
Templar submitted the agency’s policy to the Training Council and received it back last week with requested revisions.
Among the changes is Kershaw County’s proposal that would have treated camera footage as a public record subject to the state’s open records law, Templar said. The department’s proposal would have released “non-confidential video recordings to the public upon request,” while ensuring the privacy of victims, witnesses and suspects whenever possible.
But state law does not consider such video a public record, and it is more restrictive. The law largely limits disclosure to:
▪ The State Law Enforcement Division
▪ The attorney general
▪ Circuit solicitors
▪ Anyone who is the subject of the recording
▪ A criminal defendant if the recording is relevant to pending criminal action
▪ A parent or legal guardian of a minor or incapacitated person who is the subject of a recording or relevant criminal action
▪ A person who sues for the footage if the footage is relevant to a pending lawsuit. The person’s lawyer also would have access.
Anyone not on the list does not have a direct right to body cam footage. However, law enforcement agencies have the discretion to release the videos.
Police have a poor record
South Carolina Press Association director Bill Rogers said the limitations defeat the purpose of using cameras.
“The fact that the footage is not considered a public record is very disturbing,” Rogers said. “Why have cameras if the public can’t see what they record?”
Rogers also takes issue with leaving release of footage up to each department’s discretion.
“Police have a terrible record of releasing even dash cam videos if they’re embarrassing to police,” he said.
Lott said Richland County will lean toward transparency.
“I think the public needs to know, and I think when you release something – particularly when it’s controversial – then you can stop rumors and put the truth out,” Lott said. “We’re going to be very lenient on releasing it, very liberal with releasing it.”
The Columbia Police Department is in the process of implementing body cams after City Council approved the purchase of 300 cameras in early December. The department will submit its policy to the state training council “very soon,” department spokeswoman Jennifer Timmons said.
Police Chief Skip Holbrook said an aspect of body cams that often gets overlooked is their usefulness as a training tool.
“We can take events that occur and review them internally, critique how we’re doing a traffic stop, how we handle a volatile situation, how an officer de-escalated a situation,” Holbrook said.
State Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens and chairman of the influential Senate Judiciary Committee, said the goal of the law was to get body cams to police across the state. Defining footage as a public record would have stopped that effort in its tracks, he said.
“I don’t believe the body camera bill would have passed had we subjected it to the traditional FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requirements we subject the dash cam videos to,” Martin said.
After legislators and police become more familiar with body cams and see how they affect police work, the Legislature might reconsider when to release footage.
“I think a lot of things will become clear as we get some experience with it,” Martin said.
Reach Flanagan at (803) 771-8305.