Patrol officers at the rank of sergeant or below in the Charleston Police Department will soon wear body-mounted video cameras and will be required to turn them on during most civilian interactions, according to a police spokesman.
After requesting public input in January, the police department has finalized its body camera policy and has also decided which model of camera to purchase. According to spokesman Charles Francis, the department plans to order 130 VIEVU LE3 cameras using more than $100,000 that has already been secured via federal grants and the Charleston Police Fund. The shipment is expected to arrive in May, and officers will be trained to use the cameras before wearing them on patrol.
According to the specifications listed on VIEVU's website, the LE3 features water-resistant non-submersible casing, 16 GB of internal memory, and up to five hours of recording time on a single battery. Unlike some of the models initially considered by the police department, the LE3 does not have an infrared "night vision" mode, but it is advertised as having "low light capability."
The department's field guide for body cameras, which went into effect March 9, states that body worn cameras (abbreviated BWCs) "shall be utilized, based on availability, by all on-duty uniformed personnel assigned to the Operations Bureau Patrol Division at the rank of sergeant and below" to provide "an accurate and unbiased recorded account of an incident."
The policy states that an officer must activate his or her camera "if there is probable cause or reasonable suspicion at the beginning of an encounter or incident" and that it must keep recording until the incident ends or the officer leaves the scene. Officers are encouraged "if possible" to advise citizens if they are being recorded during non-arrest or non-investigative encounters.
The policy also lists specific instances in which the camera must be recording:
"Officers will activate the recording during each citizen encounter related to a call for service, conducting a traffic stop, conducting a field contact, and any time that enforcement action may be taken, or any other time deemed appropriate by the operating officer." The camera must also be recording during "tactical activities such as building searches, searches for suspects, and building checks of alarms."
There are several exceptions during which officers are not required to record an encounter. The cameras do not have to be turned on immediately in situations where it is "unsafe, impractical, or unreasonable" to do so, although officers are instructed to turn on their camera "once the immediacy of the situation is over." Officers are allowed to temporarily mute their cameras if they need to "discuss the specifics of the event, investigation, or case with another officer or supervisor in furtherance of the investigation."
Police are also instructed to "try to avoid recording videos of persons who are nude or when sensitive human areas are exposed," and the cameras "shall not be used to record areas where a reasonable expectation of privacy exists, such as locker rooms, dressing rooms, or restrooms."
The full department policy is below.
Police body cameras have become a hot-button topic in South Carolina since the April 4 shooting of Walter Scott by North Charleston police officer Michael T. Slager, which was captured on video by a person who happened to be walking past the scene. Following the shooting, North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey announced that the city had ordered enough cameras to outfit every officer on the force, and Seacoast Church announced it would donate 25 body cameras to the city.
Statewide, a bill in the legislature that would require all law enforcement agents to wear a camera passed unanimously out of a Senate subcommittee Wednesday (it had previously been sitting in the subcommittee since Feb. 9). The State has reported that the estimated cost of implementing the bill would be $21 million in the first year and $12 million per year after that. As revised on Wednesday, the bill would create a Body-Worn Cameras Fund at the Department of Public Safety to help law enforcement agencies implement the law, but it is unclear how much of the funding burden would fall on local agencies.
The Charleston Police Department started exploring the idea of body cameras in late 2013, before the technology had gained the state or national spotlight. Chief Greg Mullen, who has been bullish on high-tech policing tools including predictive policing software, said in June 2014 that the idea behind body cameras was to provide "dual accountability."
"A lot of times, people come in and they'll complain about the way an officer behaved or about something that they did, and what we have been able to determine across the country is, when departments are utilizing this technology, their citizen complaints go down significantly because, obviously, when you're being recorded, you're on your best behavior — not only from a citizen's perspective but from an officer's perspective," Mullen said.
Starting last summer, the police department held public input meetings and met with representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union about privacy concerns. Like dashboard camera footage, body camera footage will be considered a public record and will be obtainable under the provisions of the state Freedom of Information Act. According to the CPD policy, the department will only release body camera footage with the consent of the police chief or his designee. (Currently, law enforcement agencies sometimes deny requests for dash cam footage and other public records if they are being used in an active investigation.)
Officers will be required to upload their video footage to a police department server at the end of their shift, and they will not be allowed to edit or erase their own recordings.
Mullen said last year that the department would have a "very short window of retention" for body camera footage. Under the adopted policy, retention times can vary widely.
Recordings that are "non-investigative, non-arrest, and are not part of any internal investigation" are retained for 14 days. Recordings that involve municipal court offenses are stored for four years. Recordings that involve murder, manslaughter, criminal sexual conduct, arson, armed robbery, driving under the influence, and other offenses listed under the S.C. Preservation of Evidence Act will be stored for seven years or until a person is released, in accordance with state law. Recordings that involve General Sessions offenses not listed in the SCPEA (that is, felony and misdemeanor offenses carrying a penalty of greater than 30 days' imprisonment or a $500 fine) will be stored for 10 years.
If the police department deems it necessary to keep a recording longer than the time period listed in the policy, the reason for the video's retention "will be noted in the metadata of the specific video."
Susan Dunn, legal director of the ACLU of South Carolina, helped provide input for the Charleston Police Department as it crafted its policy and says the final product is "pretty good" overall.
"Initially, they had a longer retention policy before [footage] was destroyed, but we think what they've done there is pretty good," Dunn says. "It's clear that unless there's an arrest or something happens, it's going to be destroyed pretty quickly."
Dunn attended this week's subcommittee hearing on the state Senate's body camera bill, and she says some law enforcement agency heads have been concerned about having to make body camera footage available under the state Freedom of Information Act.
"Really, the existing Freedom of Information Act gives the police fairly extensive reasons not to release stuff, whether it's film or paper or whatever," Dunn says. "I guess in some ways, we are supportive of the City of Charleston. The City of Charleston essentially says, 'We're just going to abide by the existing law.'"
Under the most recent revision of the state Senate's body camera bill, individual law enforcement agencies would develop their own policies "pursuant to guidelines established by the Law Enforcement Training Council." Looking forward, Dunn says one issue that will have to be addressed is the use of body cameras by school resource officers — particularly in North Charleston, which has had a full-time police officer in every public elementary school since 2014. Dunn says that if police start wearing body cameras in schools, she would like for the footage to be controlled by the school and not by the police department — similar to the current arrangement for surveillance camera footage in schools.
"I think kids are entitled to a higher level of privacy, because kids just do stupid things, and they don't have this notion that 'I'm out in public now,'" Dunn says. "Part of what we do as a community is help them learn those things, and one of those places where you learn those things is school."
The City Paper has asked the North Charleston Police Department for a copy of its body camera policy, but a spokesman has not responded. Dunn says the city of North Charleston has not consulted with the ACLU about its policy.
The Senate body camera bill, S. 47, is expected to go before the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday morning.