Grace Beahm / The Post and Courier / AP

South Carolina police body cam videos to remain hidden from public

A new law requires officers to wear cameras, but Freedom of Information Act rules will not apply to recordings

NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — Under the terms of a bill that South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley signed into law this week, every law enforcement agency in the state will be required to outfit its officers with body cameras — but the recordings from those cameras will not be available to the public.

Late in the legislative session on May 13, South Carolina House of Representatives members introduced an amendment to the bill, citing privacy and safety concerns, stipulating that “data recorded by a body-worn camera is not a public record subject to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.” 

The state Senate sought to replace the amendment with one that allowed public access to the footage in certain cases of “heightened public interest” regarding police use of force, but in the final version of the bill that passed out of a conference committee of the two legislative bodies last week, the House wording remained intact.

The news has raised serious concerns over media freedom and civil liberties among activist groups and campaigners for transparency of police actions. It raises particularly pressing problems, as the body camera law came into effect after a policeman in North Charleston, Michael Slager, killed an unarmed black man, Walter Scott, earlier this year. The brutality of the incident — which came to light only after cellphone footage emerged showed Slager shooting Scott in the back — created national headlines and eventually saw Slager charged with murder.

South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which requires public bodies to respond to requests for public records within 15 days, is commonly used by the media to obtain copies of police incident reports, police dashboard camera recordings and even emails sent by state employees. But it will not be applicable to audio and video recordings made using police body cameras, which have been touted in part as a tool to ensure transparency in police actions.

Jay Bender, an attorney for the South Carolina Press Association, said the FOIA exemption negates the stated purpose of the bill. “That’s a cop cover-up bill,” he said. “It’s to protect cops from the public finding out about their misconduct.”

The law allows a law enforcement agency to release body camera footage at “its discretion.” But without the use of FOIA, Bender said, police departments are unlikely to release footage that could incriminate officers. “They always release video that seems to exonerate the cop,” he said. “They will never release a video that shows misconduct.”

Haley traveled from the state capital to sign the bill in North Charleston — where Slager shot Scott after a routine traffic stop. Slager initially claimed that Scott tried to wrest control of his Taser. Slager was arrested several days later after a video surfaced that showed him firing at Scott eight times as he tried to run away. A grand jury indicted Slager on a murder charge on Monday.

“This is going to strengthen the people of South Carolina,” Haley said of the new law at a signing ceremony Wednesday. “This is going to strengthen law enforcement, and this is going to make sure that Walter Scott did not die without us realizing we had a problem.”

Elsewhere in the country, the American Civil Liberties Union has been critical of police departments that use body cameras but deny public access to recordings. Chad Marlow, the ACLU’s advocacy and policy counsel, criticized the Los Angeles Police Department’s body camera policy in May, saying it “undercuts transparency by withholding most of the footage from the public.”

But even some civil liberties advocates understand the need for some privacy and controls around the release of footage from police body cameras. Victoria Middleton, the executive director of the ACLU of South Carolina, said she understands the need to protect the privacy of certain subjects. “There does need to be some respect for privacy, especially of victims,” she said. “If they’re going into a situation in a house where there are minors there or if there are other people being attacked who are not involved in the incident, the video really will have the potential to invade other people’s privacy.”

Under the new law, the state Law Enforcement Training Council will have 180 days to develop guidelines for the use of body cameras by law enforcement officers. Middleton said her organization intends to provide input during that process. The national ACLU recently released a model body camera policy that specifies retention limits for video footage and requires that officers turn off their body cameras for witnesses who wish to remain anonymous, among other suggested rules.

“It’s a new area. Everybody’s grappling with the implications of body cameras,” she said. “The most evidence we’ve got about what does and doesn’t work has come out of Seattle and L.A. We don’t have the experience with how it works on the ground in South Carolina.”

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