Politics & Government

SC police chiefs eyeing progress of body camera bill

Though he’s issued them to his patrolling officers for the protection of the public and the police, Greer Police Chief Dan Reynolds, who serves as president of the South Carolina Police Chiefs Association, is not in favor of state legislation that would require all state and local law enforcement officers to wear body cameras.

“I think what we’re going to have to wait for is some court decisions to come down to really tell us when and where to use these things,” Reynolds said. “I don’t think the body camera issue is resolved yet. We’re still learning how to use these things.”

At issue are matters of privacy, cost and investigations.

As it’s written, the law, cosponsored by Sens. Gerald Malloy and Marlon Kimpson, would mandate all law enforcement officers in South Carolina wear the cameras and record all contact with the public while in the line of duty.

Supporters say the video footage provides invaluable evidence and curtails confrontations with police and claims of mistreatment. Police in Rialto, California, for example, reported a 60 percent reduction in use-of-force incidents following camera deployment in 2012, according to USA Today.

No conclusion about an effect on use of force can be drawn from the six months Greer Police have used the cameras, according to Lt. Cris Varner, but Varner said conflicts and complaints about interaction with police have dropped, and footage has been valuable for investigations and training.

“History has demonstrated that eyewitnesses are not always the most reliable form of evidence,” Malloy said. “It is time for South Carolina to invest in common-sense technology. This investment is critical to preserving the integrity of our system of justice.”

It is a sizeable investment. Greer Police evaluated several models ranging in price up to $1,500 per unit for cameras that included global position systems and other features before settling on Pro-Vision cameras that cost about $200 apiece. A new computer server required to handle the videos from the body cameras and patrol cars’ dashboard cameras cost about $80,000.

Greer Police used forfeited funds from the seizure of illegal gambling machines to invest about $85,000 in the program.

The body cameras are worn on the chests of all patrol and traffic officers and include microphones.

Recordings begin as soon as officers respond to calls for service, and they carry on throughout interaction with the public. They are kept for 60 to 90 days, longer if they have value as evidence in investigations or for training, Varner said.

One supervising officer, Varner, is the only one with access to edit the footage, Reynolds said.

Current policy, which remains under evaluation, calls for officers to gain permission from residents before filming inside homes unless they are making an arrest or serving a warrant. Officers do not film while responding to calls inside schools, unless they are interacting with adults, only, and school resource officers do not wear the cameras.

“We have sort of a restrictive policy,” Reynolds said. “We developed a policy prior to implementing the system, but there are still some issues that relate to privacy and other things, whether people need to give their permission.”

Victoria Middleton, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, said protection of privacy should be an important concern when it comes to police body cameras.

“It’s a complicated issue,” Middleton said. “We definitely support their use just as we support dash-cam videos. The privacy not only of the citizen who’s being videotaped but of the officer is important. What happens to the video – how long it’s retained and who can have access to it – that’s very important to protect privacy. And there needs to be a way to ensure that it can’t be creatively edited, shall we say, because the whole point is to document.

“While they can be helpful and we’re supportive, generally, they’re not going to be a foolproof solution to the problem of law enforcement engaging with citizens. They need to be used properly, and oversight needs to be in place. They can be very, very valuable, but they can also be intrusive just like any recording device.”

Reynolds said firm, tested and proven policy should be established before legislation requires police to use body cameras. He said it’s also still being determined if investigations are hampered by witnesses being more reluctant to share information when they know they are being filmed.

“Right now we’re activating ours with every public contact,” Varner said. “We’re looking at possibly changing that. If somebody asks you for directions, do you really need to video that? That’s one of the things we’re looking at. A lot of that could hinge on whatever happens with this bill.”

Police from across the state have voiced opinions to a judiciary subcommittee the past two weeks.

Officers in Spartanburg County, Oconee County, the city of Greenville, Anderson and Liberty are among those in the Upstate who use such cameras.

Interest in them has boomed since an unarmed teenager was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and before two officers were executed in New York last year, but Reynolds said Greer’s police body cameras were in the works beforehand.

After the Senate subcommittee’s evaluation of the bill, the judiciary committee will review it before it could enter debate on the Senate floor. It would then have to be passed by the House by June of next year before it could become law this legislative session.

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