by Paul Bowers
A bill requiring all law enforcement agencies in the state to equip their officers with body cameras was amended this week to allow the camera footage to be released to the public under certain circumstances.
Sen. Gerald Malloy (D-Darlington) prefiled the bill, S. 47, in December 2014, but it did not gain momentum in the Senate until after the April 4 police shooting of Walter L. Scott in North Charleston. An eyewitness video of the shooting played an important role in securing a murder charge against the officer who shot Scott, and the bill will be named the Walter L. Scott Law in his memory if it passes.
On May 13, the House of Representatives passed an amendment to the bill exempting all footage from disclosure under the state Freedom of Information Act, declaring that video and audio recorded by a body camera "is not a public record." This provision went against the precedent set by police incident reports and dashboard camera videos, which are often released to the public as a result of Freedom of Information requests.
The bill returned to the Senate for approval. The Senate unanimously passed a version of the bill Wednesday after Sens. Malloy and Larry Martin (R-Pickens) introduced the following amended text:
(4) A law enforcement agency or prosecutor shall release data recorded by a body-worn camera pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act if a request is made to release the data pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act and the following conditions are all met:
(a) the data is retained by the law enforcement agency or prosecutor in connection with an ongoing criminal investigation, internal investigation, or prosecution;
(b) the recorded interaction involved the unlawful use of force by a law enforcement officer or resulted in a formal complaint for unlawful conduct by a law enforcement officer; and
(c) the heightened public interest requires disclosure of the data.
The bill also allows certain parties involved in criminal investigations and court cases to obtain body camera footage, including victims of recorded criminal acts and people who are the subject of a video recording and have not been charged with a criminal offense.
The S.C. Freedom of Information Act states that "it is vital in a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner." It requires public bodies to respond to public records requests within 15 days and to limit fees to "the actual cost of searching for or making copies of records."