Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: Video of police encounters only helps if you get to see the video

THE TEENAGER refuses to obey a cop’s orders. The cop overreacts. Video captures the results, which are hard to watch.

This video isn’t from Spring Valley High School, and this teenager didn’t just get manhandled. This teenager is dead.

As far as I know, the video of Seneca Police Lt. Mark Tiller shooting 19-year-old Zachary Hammond as he tried to drive away from a marijuana bust hasn’t gone viral. Some say that’s because the victim was white. I think it’s because of the video itself — or, more to the point, its absence for three months from public view. And that points to a flaw in South Carolina’s open records law, and an even larger flaw in our new body-camera law.

For all those months that Mr. Hammond’s parents and lawyer were complaining that the media weren’t paying proper attention to the shooting, all they could point to was an autopsy that the family paid for — hardly the smoking gun of a smoking gunshot, as we saw in the bystander’s North Charleston video, or a deputy dumping a student out of her desk and tossing her across the floor.

When we finally saw the Seneca video — the day after the Spring Valley High School video — it was easy to see why officials wanted to keep it secret. It shows the officer firing shots into a car that seems pretty clearly to be trying to drive away from him — not run over him, as police say.

The solicitor says if you study the video, frame by frame, it tells a different story, one that justifies the officer’s fear for his life and split-second decision to shoot. I haven’t done that, and I haven’t interviewed witnesses, so I don’t want to second guess her decision not to charge the officer — a decision that properly would take into account whether she could win a conviction.

What I am second guessing is the decision by the solicitor and the police department and SLED to withhold the video from the public … for three months. It would be kind to call that a legally questionable decision.

It would be easy to call it an attempted cover-up — not in a legal sense, but in a political sense. In the sense that police knew that the video was, as the solicitor put it, “troublesome.”

Law enforcement officials like to say they can’t release public records that are part of an ongoing criminal investigation. That’s not what the law says, on two counts.

The law does allow police to withhold “information to be used in a prospective law enforcement action,” but only to the extent that it involves the “premature release” of that information. That hardly applies in a case where the only prospective action was against the police officer — who was quite aware that he was being investigated. And now that we’ve seen the video, it’s equally clear that it doesn’t qualify for any of the other exemptions in the law (disclosing informants’ identities, endangering life, health or property, etc.).

This and several other instances of police refusing to turn over dash-cam video have convinced even such law-and-order legislators as Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin that the law needs changing, to make it more difficult to ignore. His proposal: Require a judge to sign off on the refusal to turn over police videos. It’s a sensible solution that probably wouldn’t tax our overtaxed judges as much as you might think; I suspect police will become a lot more willing to comply with the law once they realize that people don’t have to hire a lawyer, file a lawsuit and wait and wait and wait for that suit to be heard before they are ordered to let the public in on the public’s business.

The other way police misstate the law when they say they can’t turn over records is the use of the word “can’t.” The law actually says a public body “may but is not required to exempt from disclosure” those items on the exemption list.

To see how “may but is not required to” works, consider how quickly SLED agreed to release video showing a disturbing picture of Dorchester County Coroner Chris Nisbet holding his black neighbor at gunpoint and refusing a police order to drop his weapon. As much as I tend to give police the benefit of the doubt, it’s hard not to conclude that the difference in the two videos was that the police wanted the public to see the Dorchester County video and didn’t want the public to see the Seneca video.

If the Legislature adopts Sen. Martin’s proposal, it should eliminate such picking and choosing when it comes to dash-cam video. But it won’t do any good when it comes to police body cameras, because they are specifically exempt from the open records law. That super level of secrecy was the price the House extracted from the Senate in order to pass a law requiring all police to wear body cameras, once the state provides funding.

The law does require police to turn over body-cam video to anyone who is being recorded, and to anyone who files a civil suit involving the incident being recorded, but the only mechanism for obtaining that video is filing a lawsuit — or being charged with a crime.

There is one other instance when a body-cam video could be made public: if police or prosecutors decide they want to release it.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

Related stories from The State in Columbia SC

  Comments