All uniformed South Carolina law enforcement officers whose primary duty is to answer calls for service and interact with the public must wear body cameras under state guidelines approved by the state Law Enforcement Training Council.
South Carolina this year became the first state to require the cameras be worn by law enforcement and lawmakers asked that the Training Council develop guidelines by January to detail how the devices should be used and by whom.
The three-page list of guidelines details when cameras should be activated, restrictions on their use, retention of footage and its release.
The 11-member council, made up of law enforcement officials and state agency directors, approved the guidelines Friday after adding a requirement that officers document either on the recording or in writing their reasons if they discontinued any recording.
State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel, who chairs the council, said he hopes the cameras will decrease complaints against police and improve behavior by citizens during interactions with police.
“Hopefully, we’ll see positive results all around,” he said afterward.
South Carolina lawmakers this year passed a bill mandating the cameras, following a widely publicized shooting death of a fleeing black man by a white North Charleston police officer captured on a bystander’s cell phone camera. The officer was charged with murder and fired.
Under the legislation, the council was given six months to adopt guidelines, which then must be sent to all law enforcement agencies who are to use them to craft their own policies. Once those policies are approved by the council, agencies can request funding to buy cameras and related equipment.
“Next time this year, there are going to be a lot of cameras on the street,” Keel said.
At least 20 to 25 agencies already use body cameras and Keel said some of the state’s biggest agencies have already purchased cameras and may seek reimbursement. All agencies are to submit their policies by March 7.
Lawmakers can reject any of the guidelines when they review them next year but they cannot insert new guidelines, under the new law.
“It’s still a ways from being implemented but it’s an important step occurring today to get that done and I applaud their work in getting it to this point,” Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin said of the guidelines.
Under the guidelines, all officers, uniformed or not, who regularly answer calls and interact with the public must wear the cameras.
They are to be activated, under the guidelines, when an officer arrives at a call for service or initiates any other law enforcement or investigative encounter with a member of the public. That can include traffic stops, car accidents, arrests, calls involving public drunks, emotionally disturbed persons, use of force, suspicious persons and “an adversarial contact or a potentially adversarial contact.”
They are not to be used, under the guidelines, to record conversations between police without the permission of the agency’s chief, or to record encounters with undercover officers or confidential informants, or during breaks or personal activities.
“Officers should use discretion where there is a victim of rape or sexual assault,” the guidelines state, also suggesting officers try to avoid recording people who are nude or when “sensitive human areas are exposed.”
Recordings that are non-investigative, don’t involve an arrest and are not part of any internal investigation do not have to be kept beyond 14 days, under the guidelines. Footage that is part of a case involving arrests or violations of the law is to be kept according to the state’s evidence preservation law.
The footage is not a public record subject to the state Freedom of Information Act, under the new law, although a law enforcement agency, SLED, or prosecutors may release recordings.
Those who are the subject of a recording, a criminal defendant, a civil litigant, a person whose property has been seized or damaged in connection with a case involving a recording, an attorney representing someone involved in such cases or a parent or guardian of a minor involved in such cases also can request data from the recordings.
Draft guidelines had restricted use of the cameras in situations “where individuals have a reasonable expectation of privacy.” But the panel on Friday struck that language, arguing it was too broad.
The guidelines recommend that agencies in their policies cover topics the guidelines do not, such as when an officer can deactivate a camera or when an officer can view a video.
Jarrod Bruder, executive director of the South Carolina Sheriffs Association, said his organization has supported the use of body cameras. “We needed the guidance they were offering,” he said of the guidelines. “And we look forward to putting that into our policies.”
The legislation does not require use of the cameras until they can be funded by the state.
“We do know, and I think legislators are aware, that there is not enough funding initially to fund all law enforcement officers in South Carolina,” Keel said. “So that will be something they will have to address from year to year.”
Keel said the costs for storing the data from the cameras is more of a concern now among agencies than the purchase price of the cameras. He said the panel has tried to keep storage requirements down by not requiring retention beyond two weeks for more routine footage.
He said legislators have placed $3.4 million in a fund for the cameras in the current fiscal year, $2.4 million of that being recurring money.