by Paul Bowers
A bill mandating the use of body cameras at every law enforcement agency in South Carolina passed the House of Representatives by a unanimous vote Wednesday. If signed into law, the bill would be called the Walter L. Scott Law in memory of a man who was shot in the back by a North Charleston police officer in April.
Bill S. 47, which originated in the Senate, has been returned to the Senate with some revisions. If the Senate votes to approve the revisions, the bill will then move on to Gov. Nikki Haley's desk for her signature.
As the bill stands today, the statewide Law Enforcement Training Council (LETC) would be tasked with creating guidelines for the use of body cameras by state and local law enforcement agencies within 360 days after the bill's signing. Those guidelines would specify "which law enforcement officers must wear body cameras, when body cameras must be worn and activated, restrictions on the use of body cameras, the process to obtain consent of victims and witnesses before using body cameras during an interview, the retention and release of data recorded by body cameras, and access to the data recorded by body cameras."
Individual law enforcement agencies would be allowed to request modifications to the policy for local use. Any modifications would have to be approved by the LETC.
The cost of outfitting every law enforcement officer in the state with a body camera has been estimated at $21 million in the first year, plus $12 million per year after that (the state's annual budget is about $21 billion). The bill does not include a deadline by which all agencies must purchase or implement body cameras. It also does not set aside a specific amount of state money to fund the purchase of body cameras, although it would establish a Body Cameras Fund within the Department of Public Safety to help provide funds to local agencies. A budget proposal from the Senate would set aside $3.4 million to help buy the cameras.
One unusual distinction of the bill is that it says body camera footage would not be accessible by the public under the state Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). This would go against the precedent set by dashboard camera footage, which is often released by law enforcement agencies in response to FOIA requests. The Charleston Police Department, which finalized its own body camera policy in March, has said that it will release body camera footage only by the consent of the police chief or his designee.
Rep. Wendell Gilliard, a Charleston Democrat who pre-filed a similar bill to S. 47 in the House in December 2014, says he does not believe the bill could have gained unanimous, bipartisan support in the House without the Walter Scott case, which has hinged on an eyewitness video of the shooting that contradicted the Officer Michael T. Slager's narrative.
"Unfortunately, it took an incident like this to resurrect the bill," Gilliard says.
According to Gilliard, House Speaker Jay Lucas, a Republican, gave him his word that the body camera bill would come up for a vote this week — and Lucas kept that promise.
"I'm a strong believer that you have to be optimistic when you want to get something done in the General Assembly," Gilliard says. "You've got to have a bipartisan effort. Surely this is not a one-sided issue or one-party issue. This is a humane issue."
Gilliard, who previously advocated for the installation of surveillance cameras in high-crime areas during his time on Charleston City Council, called for the use of body cameras statewide after holding symposiums and meeting with law enforcement agency heads to gather input about the issue in 2014. He says body cameras are not a panacea, but that they will "take us where the dashboard cameras can't."
"The body cameras are not a solve-all, but it's a step in the right direction," Gilliard says. "When you look at the problem with our law enforcement throughout the whole country, it's a cultural problem. It runs deep. And everybody has to shoulder the responsibility to make a change for the better."
The 2015 legislative session ends June 4, and if the bill does not pass before then, it will remain on the docket when the General Assembly reconvenes in January 2016.