Body cameras bring expected challenges, surprise benefits

On the last day of the 2015 legislative session, the South Carolina General Assembly set the stage for the statewide rollout of body-worn cameras for law enforcement officers. Contingent upon full funding from the state, nearly every officer coming in contact with the public would be required to wear a body camera.

Since then, all state and local law enforcement agencies should have adopted a required department or agency-level body camera policy. While a number of municipal police departments purchased body cameras voluntarily years before this legislation was passed, those that had not done so applied for funding.

Funding challenges
Between the FY15 and FY16 state budgets, the General Assembly appropriated a total of $5.8 million toward the $14 million in requests for body cameras made by 168 out of the 300 eligible law enforcement agencies in South Carolina.

The Public Safety Coordinating Council created a matrix that would ensure fairness among all the agencies making requests. First, the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy determined the number of certified officers in each agency (before the applications for funding were received).

Then, based on the numbers from the academy, the PSCC set caps for the cameras at $600 each. It also created four tiers and established a formula percentage for each tier:

  • Tier 1 – Agencies with 1-24 officers — PSCC would fund 100 percent of the cost of the cameras.
  • Tier 2 – Agencies with 25-50 officers — PSCC would fund 100 percent.
  • Tier 3 – Agencies with 51-149 officers — PSCC would fund 75 percent.
  • Tier 4 – Agencies with 150 officers or more — PSCC would fund 50 percent.

After the applications came in and this formula was applied, the PSCC decided to use the remaining money to fund data storage. It covered the storage cost requests for the Tiers 1, 2 and 3 agencies, but it was unable to do so for Tier 4.

Many warned that the law wouldn't fully mend the frayed relations between law enforcement and some community members, and that some video footage might have serious limitations. And anecdotally, law enforcement officers from around the state have experienced difficulties caused by camera placement, camera angle lighting and other limitations.

Ultimately, however, the reaction from many in law enforcement has been positive.

For instance, before the rollout of cameras, some assumed that the presence of the cameras, much like vehicle dashcams before them, would result in better behavior on both sides of the typical field interaction — members of the public and officers would become more mindful of their behavior.

This has proved true, according to accounts from officers around the state. The hope that allegations of misconduct would be resolved quickly and inexpensively by simply reviewing the video has also come to pass in some instances.

Some unanticipated benefits
By instituting random video audits, police departments in the City of Columbia and others have used these tools to give valuable, proactive guidance in the form of after-action feedback to officers within their departments.

"Body-worn cameras play a critical role in training," Columbia Police Chief William "Skip" Holbrook said. "This technology allows officers, supervisors and trainers to review officers' actions and tactics in order to identify examples of good decision making and tactics, as well as examples where improvement is needed. This technology makes us better."

An officer whose video footage is pulled, revealing proper execution of his duties, can be encouraged to continue in this manner, thereby enforcing the development of good field practices.

Likewise, the footage empowers supervising officers who are not able to be physically present with every officer to correct behaviors when the video displays conduct that either doesn't rise to the department's standards or could place the officer in harm's way if repeated.

While the money the General Assembly allocated to the statewide body-worn camera rollout fell short of the actual expense of the devices, the Municipal Association of SC will be one of several entities advocating for continued — if not increased — funding.