Support growing for body cameras

Some South Carolina police departments are beginning to use small cameras attached to their officers" uniforms as a way to collect information and protect both officers and residents.

Support for body-worn cameras has picked up nationally following the police shooting of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Mo., in August. But some South Carolina departments were using the cameras before the shooting and the subsequent unrest in Missouri.

By clipping onto the officer's hat, clothing or eyeglasses, the cameras can supplement dash cams in police cars and provide another video recording to show what happens on the street. The video can be used to compile evidence, show interaction between an officer and a suspect, and determine whether probable cause was established.

Body camera
(Photo provided by City of Columbia Police Department)  

Law enforcement officers say cameras also can help save time when investigating complaints by the public, improve the conduct of both police officers and the people being recorded, and help deter individuals from filing frivolous complaints.

Some departments hope to equip all officers with the cameras, while others target specific areas. The Columbia Police Department began using body cameras in August, primarily in the capital city's entertainment districts such as the Vista and Five Points. The CPD said it added cameras as a way to increase transparency, assist the public, help with accountability and reduce the department's liability.

For police chiefs like Joey Reynolds of Bluffton, whose department of 41 sworn officers began testing and evaluating a few cameras several months ago, the experience has been overwhelmingly positive. 

"It was eye-opening. We wondered how officers were going to accept it. I was pleased to see we had no pushback at all," Reynolds said. "The officers learned it helped them with compiling evidence and it protected them against unwarranted complaints."

Keith Thomas worked for the Cheraw Police Department for 24 years before becoming chief this year. While he was an investigator, he occasionally was responsible for looking into complaints filed by individuals against officers. He found the cases often came down to the officer's word against the person making the complaint.

"I felt there had to be a better way to deal with it," said Thomas, whose department now uses the body-worn cameras. "My position is, "We do it right," and I want the community to know we will be transparent. What better way than to provide the officer with a camera?"

As a member of the SC Municipal Insurance and Risk Financing Fund (the Municipal Association-sponsored property and casualty insurance program), Cheraw applied for and received a grant to purchase five body cameras.

Thomas" biggest piece of advice to departments around the state: Be proactive. "You don't want to implement (cameras) after you need it. Every day you wait is a day you put yourself and your department in jeopardy of something bad happening. Even if you do everything right, it still can divide your community."

Richland County Sheriff's Department Major Chris Cowan, who is president of the SC Law Enforcement Officers Association, said there has long been interest in body-worn cameras. Individual departments" concerns, he said, deal with cost and technology.

While he said cost does not outweigh safety concerns, departments may be hesitant to sink a large amount of money into body-worn cameras when the technology may change in a few months. Another aspect to consider is the capacity for storing data and the need for a policy on maintaining that data.

"Law enforcement is interested and sees the benefits," Cowan said. "But is the science there? And is it cost prohibitive?"

Steve Campbell, a retired Providence, R.I., Police Department major who is now a law enforcement trainer and consultant with the Public Agency Training Council, said cameras are becoming more prevalent around the country. He said the tool can protect officers on issues of probable cause and can capture spontaneous statements made by suspects and victims.

"They help police officers and prosecutors and assist the judge and jury to decide what is the truth of the matter," Campbell said. "We should embrace the technology."

Best practices for camera use

  • Officers should record all calls for service that involves citizen contact, including traffic stops, citizen transports, investigatory stops and foot pursuits. Encounters with undercover officers or confidential informants should not be recorded.
  • In the event an officer deems it necessary to stop recording, he should make a verbal statement citing his intentions to stop the recording and his reason.
  • When entering a residence there is a heightened degree and expectation of privacy. As a general rule, if the officer must get the resident's consent to enter a premise, he should also inform the resident the event is being recorded.

Source: Legal and Liability Risk Management Institute, a division of the Public Agency Training Council