In the wake of last year's shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., the concept of making police officers wear video cameras suddenly entered the national conversation. As the thinking goes, by providing an objective record of police-civilian interactions, a camera could provide accountability for both officers and the general public. In the Ferguson case, it could have possibly provided a definitive record of the fatal encounter between Brown and Officer Darren Wilson.
In December, President Barack Obama asked Congress to authorize $75 million in spending over the course of three years to help local police departments purchase up to 50,000 body cameras. Congress has yet to approve the request, and even if it did, the initiative would only put a small dent in equipping every law enforcement officer in the country. One 2008 estimate by the U.S. Department of Justice put the number of law enforcement personnel with general arrest powers at 765,000.
A year before the White House expressed an interest in body cameras, also known as wearable video recorders, the Charleston Police Department was looking into the possibility of outfitting its own officers with the technology. Police Chief Greg Mullen has proven bullish on cutting-edge law enforcement tools, adopting the NYPD-developed CompStat crime tracking technique in 2007 shortly after he took command and launching a test run of IBM's predictive policing software suite in 2012. In late 2013, the department started investigating the use of body cameras.
This year, leaders at the state and local level are pushing to outfit officers with body cameras. Charleston police have already secured more than $100,000 in funding from the Charleston Police Fund, the Daniel Island Community Foundation, and a U.S. Department of Justice grant to launch their initiative. But state lawmakers — led by Democrats — are just beginning to debate a bill that would require the technology to be implemented at all law enforcement agencies statewide.
The Charleston Police Department plans to purchase about 120 wearable video cameras for its officers by June, with a long-term goal of outfitting all 440 officers on the force. But before that happens, the CPD will have to lay down some ground rules and decide on which model of body camera to use. According to Lt. Jason Emanuele, the department is evaluating 10 different camera models from the brands Digital-Ally, Muvi, Taser, VieVu, and TeamIntel.
Under the terms of a draft body-camera policy released by the CPD last week, a citizen who objects to being recorded in a non-arrest or non-investigative encounter would be able to tell an officer to turn the camera off. However, officers would keep the camera rolling during traffic stops, field interviews, "police service," responses to a call for service where a crime is involved or conflict is anticipated, and "any other time deemed appropriate by the operating officer." An officer would also be allowed to mute the camera while discussing a case with another officer after an encounter has stabilized.
Officers would be required to upload their video to a server at the end of a shift, and they would not be allowed to edit or erase any recordings. Depending on the presence and severity of criminal activity in the recordings, videos would be stored on the server for a time ranging from 14 days to 10 years.
At a press meeting last Tuesday, police officials stressed that, whatever policies are adopted, a body camera is not a perfect tool. For example, since officers are trained to angle the gun side of their body away from combative subjects, a camera mounted on the chest will not always capture what the officer is seeing (at least one model of body camera being considered by the department includes a head-mounted goggle camera that solves this problem). Footage quality can also decrease in low-light situations or when an officer is running. And while the current draft of the body camera policy requires officers to turn on their cameras before most civilian interactions, the draft also acknowledges that in some situations it may be impossible or dangerous for an officer to stop what he or she is doing and toggle the camera on.
In some cases, body camera footage could be used in court to prove whether an officer had reasonable suspicion to approach or arrest a subject. In one pair of test videos produced by CPD personnel in a park at night, two officers were equipped with two different cameras — one with a nighttime infrared function and one without. In the footage with the infrared function, it was clear that a subject on camera was holding out a cell phone toward the officers. In the footage without night vision, it was unclear what the subject had pulled out of his pocket.
"The cameras don't always see everything that the officers see, and the cameras sometimes can see a whole lot more than what the officer might see," says Deputy Chief Tony Elder.
The ACLU has also expressed concerns about body cameras, especially as they relate to privacy and the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. News reporters would be able to request footage from the cameras under the state Freedom of Information Act, so details recorded in the videos — including domestic disputes and the layout of private citizens' homes — could become public information one day. The police department has submitted its draft policy to the ACLU seeking input.
Reached via email, ACLU of South Carolina Executive Director Victoria Middleton said she had received a copy of the policy but had not had a chance to review it yet. One concern she says she will want to address is how long the police department stores old video footage. "For the vast majority of police encounters with the public, there is no reason to preserve video evidence, and those recordings therefore should be deleted relatively quickly," Middleton says. "Retention periods should be measured in weeks, not years, and video should be deleted after that period unless a recording has been flagged."
According to CPD officials, leaders from the North Charleston Police Department and Charleston County Sheriff's Office have called to ask about the results of CPD's camera testing.
Two bills being considered in the state House of Representatives this year relate to body cameras. One, H. 3057, would force all law enforcement agencies in the state to equip their officers with body cameras. A less ambitious bill, H. 3058, would create a Study Committee on the Use of Wearable Video Cameras by State Troopers, which would be required to report its findings to the General Assembly on June 1, 2015. Both are currently in the House Judiciary Committee.
Rep. Wendell Gilliard, an outspoken Democrat representing Charleston County, is a sponsor of both bills. He says he was partly inspired by events surrounding the death of Denzel Curnell, a 19-year-old who died in the presence of a police officer at Charleston's Bridgeview Village apartment complex in June 2014. A SLED investigation ultimately ruled Curnell's death a suicide, but some community leaders expressed skepticism about the nature of the officer's involvement due to a gap in the apartment complex's surveillance camera footage that skipped over the shooting (the gap was later determined to have resulted from the design of the camera, which was motion-activated and shut off after a set period).
"We've got to learn to respect each other," Gilliard says, "and I think when things come in question, we ought to, by any means necessary, use modern-day technology to help resolve these situations and these concerns."
Currently, H. 3057 is an unfunded mandate that would leave local law enforcement agencies to pick up the tab for equipping their own officers. Gilliard says one funding mechanism could come from forfeitures, the money and property that police seize during criminal investigations and traffic stops. According to a report by the Institute for Justice, law enforcement agencies in South Carolina reported about $4 million in drug-related forfeitures alone in 2003.
Currently the state's general fund takes a 5-percent cut of forfeitures from county law enforcement agencies, but Gilliard says he would seek to increase that percentage to 15 percent to help outfit state troopers with body cameras. As for local law enforcement agencies, Gilliard says they could seek money from the U.S. Department of Justice's Assets Forfeiture Fund or from private companies.
In the Republican-dominated General Assembly, nothing gets passed without some Republican support. All of the sponsors on H. 3057 are Democrats, but Gilliard says he has spoken with some Republican colleagues who "understand the necessity to use this type of technology." Asked which Republicans were on board with the bill, he said, "I don't want to call any names until they commit."
To read a copy of CPD's draft body camera policy, click here. If you would like to give input about the policy, which is still being revised, email Public Information Officer Charles Francis at firstname.lastname@example.org.