EDITORIAL: Police body cameras are essential gear
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EDITORIAL: Police body cameras are essential gear

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Police body cameras probably won’t stop all abuses. The video that prompted their statewide rollout — the shooting death of Walter Scott in North Charleston — was captured by a passerby.

So was the video of a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck. A private camera also caught the prelude to Floyd’s  in-custody death. In Louisville, officers who failed to turn on body cams amid a riot-related fatal shooting have been fired, along with their chief.

Police body cams aren’t a perfect answer for stopping illegally violent arrests, but at this point, people need to accept that electronic eyes are as essential to police work as to many other professions. And local police chiefs and sheriffs need to take responsibility for buying them, training officers on how to use them and storing the recordings.

When the legislature mandated that S.C. police wear body cameras, it let police departments put off the purchases until they got state funding. That was appropriate, because the legislature should not require local governments to take on new expenses — particularly since it has put so many limits on how and how much locally elected city and county councils can generate the money to pay for services. What wasn’t appropriate was the legislature’s continued failure to pay for police to purchase and maintain cameras and video.

Fortunately, most police departments have come up with the money themselves. So while lawmakers still need to provide funding, an equally important matter is making the camera systems do what we want: protect citizens, protect cops and increase the public’s trust.

South Carolina has a long way to go in that regard. The state has little more than a three-page guide put out by the Law Enforcement Training Council. The statute says all police agencies are to use body cams and sets standards for who can review recordings, which are inappropriately exempted from the Freedom of Information Act.

That needs to change; body-cam video should be assumed to be public, just like video from cameras mounted in police cars, with police having to convince a judge that releasing it would clearly impede an investigation. The only thing more provocative than a video showing police brutalize someone without cause would be finding out those images were withheld.

University of South Carolina law professor Seth Stoughton, a former officer, recently told Post and Courier reporter Fleming Smith that the 2015 law mandating the use of police body cams was “nowhere near completely effective,” partly because there’s no cohesive policy on how to use them.

But there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Plenty of law enforcement agencies have come up with workable policies that say when cameras must be on. Obviously, that discretion cannot be left solely to officers. For instance, in use-of-force arrests, officers shouldn’t be allowed to review the video of an arrest before writing an initial report. Doing so could allow officers to concoct a uniform narrative that bodes in their favor.

Yes, it can get complicated. Defendants and their lawyers must be given access to pertinent video, and police who are accused of wrongdoing must have access to exculpatory video.

Prohibitions must be in place against using body cams in ways that violate our Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures. That means body cams shouldn’t be used for mass surveillance or in connection with biometric databases that could search body-cam video for wanted suspects.

And you’ve got to have policies — policies backed up by law — that say how recordings are stored, for how long and by whom.

Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, tried to get the 2015 law amended to include some of these measures, but he told Smith it was hard to draw attention to the subject in 2017. Perhaps his colleagues will listen more closely in the wake of the worst rioting South Carolina has seen in decades.

After all, body cams are the perfect middle ground: neither pro-police nor anti-police, but tools for showing whichever party acts inappropriately.

This editorial is from www.postandcourier.com via the S.C. Press Association.

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