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In Focus: South Carolina first leads, then lags with police body cameras

WMBF Investigates took a closer look at South Carolina's body camera law, and how experts say...
WMBF Investigates took a closer look at South Carolina's body camera law, and how experts say it could be improved.(Source: WMBF News)
Published: Jul. 27, 2021 at 11:50 PM EDT
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MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WMBF) - Communities across the nation continue to call for transparency and accountability in our police departments.

The robust use of body-worn cameras has been seen as a critical element in accomplishing that.

But there are weaknesses in South Carolina regarding the use of these tools. WMBF Investigates took a closer look at the variations and inconsistencies that provide room for improvement, according to some policy experts and state lawmakers.

In 2015, South Carolina set itself apart by becoming the first state in the country to require all law enforcement agencies to outfit their officers with body-worn cameras.

It followed as national attention turned to use-of-force cases, particularly the high-profile killing of Walter Scott by a North Charleston police officer, which was captured in detail by a cellphone video, not a body camera.

Fast-forward to 2021, where issues with mistrust continue to be felt close to home, following the battle for body camera video to be released of the shooting of Andrew Brown Jr. in North Carolina.

South Carolina does have restrictive body camera footage release laws in place but not to the extent of North Carolina’s. When it comes to what the state does have on the books, a law professor with the University of South Carolina, Seth Stoughton, said South Carolina “got lapped.”

Before former Governor Nikki Haley signed the 2015 law into place, some police departments had already begun acquiring cameras. But once law, every department in the state was mandated to have them.

The South Carolina Law Enforcement Training Council formulated guidelines for departments to base off the creation of their own policies. Then the policies had to be submitted for review and approval.

Even with an approved policy, though, departments would also only be subjected to implementing a body camera program if they received the necessary state funding to do so, which in practice, has become a monumental task.

To establish these guidelines, the training council did a study. But more than 5 years have passed since then, and nothing has changed in its recommendations, nor in the law itself.

A spokesperson for South Carolina’s Law Enforcement Training Council said in an email that “there hasn’t been a reason to make any necessary adjustments to date.”

“We really had an opportunity to lead in terms of the continued evolution of policing in the United States,” Stoughton argued. “And we led for 15 minutes and then got bypassed and didn’t bother to catch up.”

The guidelines aren’t meant to be comprehensive, but Stoughton said this seems like a missed opportunity.

“This is where I think the Law Enforcement Training Council really has the opportunity to provide very, very useful information, not here’s what to do. But here’s the framework that you can use to decide what to do. Here are the things to keep in mind,” Stoughton said. “You can’t do that in a four-page letter. It’s just not realistic.”

Fifteenth Circuit Solicitor Jimmy Richardson said body cameras help prove what really happens in a case.

“Every law enforcement agency across our area has reported a reduction in people claiming abuse,” Richardson said.

Local body camera policies can dictate that cameras be turned on in situations not listed in the state guidelines, or if an officer doesn’t activate it or interrupts the recording, they need to document why.

Many policies also spell out that law enforcement officers cannot edit, alter or erase footage caught on their cameras. But nothing in the statute itself would actually make that illegal.

There also isn’t a mandate that cameras be activated in a “reasonable timeframe” during certain situations.

Body Camera Policies by Police Agency

Click on an agency to find a link to its body camera policy.

Multiple bills have been introduced in the South Carolina General Assembly over the last several years to improve upon the law, only to stall out. One of the latest ones, House Bill 3665, seeks to (among other goals) prohibit and provide penalties for the intentional destruction of body camera footage that could be used in a criminal investigation or other legal action.

It would also help make the policies and procedures more uniform across all agencies, mandating that agencies activate their cameras in a “reasonable” timeframe.

They think this upcoming session could be different.

“We are trying to codify to make sure that everybody is playing by the same rules and regulations basically,”

Rep. Terry Alexander, D-Florence, said the bill is meant to help make sure everyone is playing by the same rules.

“We want to be a trusting community. But from both ends,” Alexander explained. “We want to trust the police and our local law enforcement officers. And we also want our communities to be trusted by law enforcement officers. These body cams, I think, kind of keep everybody honest.”

Rep. Carl Anderson, D-Georgetown, is hopeful that the bill will make progress in the upcoming 2022 session. He said the consequence of not continuing to improve upon the legislation could mean more similarities to other parts of the country that are encountering unrest between community and police.

“We’re trying to avoid all of that, you know. South Carolina has been always a proactive state, to try to avoid things from happening in a negative or bad way,” said Anderson.

WMBF Investigates reached out to several of our larger police departments to get their perspective on how well their body camera program and policy is working.

The Florence County Sheriff’s Office was only recently able to acquire cameras and sat down with WMBF Investigates to discuss its program for our In Focus series.

The Horry County Police Department and Myrtle Beach Police Department have had established programs for years, but both of them declined on-camera interviews.

“Our policies have been reviewed by South Carolina Law Enforcement Accreditation Inc., which found that our policies are in line with best practice,” a Horry County police spokesperson said in part in a message. “Our body cameras have not changed recently beyond standard updates. As technology evolves, we will evolve with it to meet community needs.”

A Myrtle Beach police spokesperson said in an email that the department believed strongly in the benefits of body cameras, and was one of the first agencies in South Carolina to outfit their officers with them.

“The body worn camera footage provides an impartial and accurate account for law enforcement and citizen interaction. It provides supervisors an opportunity for quality control checks on officer’s performance and they are required to do so,” the spokesperson said in part in an email. “These cameras provide an accurate depiction of exactly what happened on scene and helps officers’ document cases for court. We investigate every complaint we receive.”

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