Today South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley will sign S.47, a body camera bill. The bill requires state and local law enforcement agencies in South Carolina to use body cameras and to develop body camera policies and procedures. It also establishes a “Body-Worn Cameras Fund” and prohibits police body camera footage from being accessed via Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests. The increased use of police body cameras is worthwhile, but limiting access to the footage hinders attempts to increase law enforcement accountability.
Lawmakers fast-tracked S.47 following the death of Walter Scott, a 50-year-old man who in April this year was shot in the back while fleeing Michael Slager, a North Charleston, South Carolina police officer.
A passerby, Feidin Santana, filmed Scott’s shooting, and his footage will undoubtedly play a key role in Slager’s upcoming murder trial. Shortly after the shooting I wrote that it is impossible to know for sure how Slager would have reacted if he had been wearing a body camera, but nonetheless that “It is hard to imagine that if Slager had been wearing an operating body camera that he would have behaved the way he did.”
Although prioritized after Slager killed Scott, S.47 will limit public access to body camera footage of worrying police interactions with members of the public. Among those permitted to access police body camera footage are: the subjects of a body camera footage, criminal defendants, civil litigants, and attorneys representing any of these people.
It is good that S.47 allows for some access to body camera footage, but the access is too limited. With police body camera footage exempt from FOIA requests it will be difficult for citizens who don’t meet the legislation’s access requirements, such as journalists, to request footage that might be of interest to the public.
The FOIA exemption was added to the bill in large part because of the costs associated with body cameras. It is true that storing, replacing, and maintaining body cameras can be expensive. For instance, Cleveland is expecting to spend $3.3 million over five years on 1,500 body cameras. But some lawmakers have tried to tackle the fiscal impact of body cameras. An Illinois body camera bill on Gov. Rauner’s desk includes a $5 fee for traffic tickets aimed at mitigating the cost of body cameras.
Body cameras can only be used as tools for increased law enforcement accountability while governed by sensible policy. S.47 does include some good proposals, such as requiring law enforcement agencies to use body cameras, but when it comes to access to body camera footage it is too restrictive.