Every day, hundreds of hours of video are captured by body-worn cameras in South Carolina.
The state’s 2015 body camera law paved the way for its widespread adoption. But one of the stipulations of the statute declared body camera footage would not be subject to public record requests. The governor at the time, Nikki Haley, said this wouldn’t hinder transparency.
But in the Palmetto State, the law allows only a select few to get to see it.
“They understand more importantly, we have to keep communication and transparency,” Haley said at the time. “What their job is, they’re just trying to protect the evidence. That’s why FOIA became an issue, so we could protect evidence and punish who needed to be punished.”
“Everyone gets held accountable when the body cam is on,” said Marvin Neal, the president for the NAACP’s Georgetown chapter.
But after five years, some are asking that this portion of the law be revisited in order for the truth of an incident to more readily come out.
Neal sees body cameras as important devices in this day and age that protect both the police and the public. But access remains limited to those who weren’t directly involved in what video they capture.
“Dashcams, you can access as a citizen. Body cams, you can’t get a hold of unless you have subpoena power,” Neal said. “Unless you go to court or get an attorney involved with the incident – it’s not going to happen.”
University of South Carolina law professor Seth Stoughton said body cameras may not entirely deliver on the transparency the policing community hoped they would bring when the technology came onto the scene in the last decade. “One of the things that we’ve learned is if an agency gets body cameras to increase public trust, but then refuses to ever release the video, except when they are legally required to – that doesn’t actually help public trust, it hurts public trust,” Stoughton said.
As our In Focus series has revealed, police departments have to create body camera policies that meet guidelines set by the state’s Law Enforcement Training Council. The way a department decides who reviews its officers’ footage, along with how often, is decided on a department-by-department basis, which can be reviewed through their policies.
As it stands currently, the statute gives access to solicitors, other police agencies (including the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division), and the Attorney General’s office for cases they are working on. It is also in these agencies’ discretion on whether or not they choose to release this video to outside sources, such as the press or members of the public. The Myrtle Beach Police Department told WMBF News in part in a statement, “While body camera footage is specifically exempt from release under the state FOIA law, it is subject to release under the rules of criminal and civil procedure or a court order. The body camera footage allows our department to review calls for service, evaluate complaints, and make recommendations for more training. We investigate every complaint we receive.”
Horry County police said in a message that body camera video “is exempt from disclosure under state law, and HCPD operates according to that.” Members of the public can request and receive the video if they are one of the following: a person who is the subject of the recording; a criminal defendant if the recording is relevant to a pending criminal action; a civil litigant if the recording is relevant to a pending civil action; a person whose property has been seized or damaged in relation to, or is otherwise involved with, a crime to which the recording is related; a parent or legal guardian of a minor or incapacitated person described in the first two provisions; and an attorney for a person described above.
Florence County Sheriff TJ Joye told WMBF News he ran for his seat on transparency and bringing body cameras to the sheriff’s office this year is a major part of making sure that happens. As long as it doesn’t affect an investigation, Joye said he would release the video to let it speak for itself.
- In South Carolina, only a few people have access to video from police body cameras.
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