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In Focus: Police body camera video accessible to select few in South Carolina

Updated: Aug. 3, 2021 at 8:30 AM EDT
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MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WMBF) - Every day, hundreds of hours of video are captured by body-worn cameras in South Carolina.

But in the Palmetto State, the law allows only a select few to get to see it.

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.

“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.”

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.

RELATED COVERAGE | South Carolina first leads, then lags with police body cameras

“Everyone gets held accountable when the body cam is on,” said Marvin Neal, the president for the NAACP’s Georgetown chapter.

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.

“Don’t try to cover up anything, don’t try to buy time with it,” Joye said. “Put it on the table, it is what it is.”

Fifteenth Circuit Solicitor Jimmy Richardson said he looks to be as transparent with the press and community as possible, but it’s also his job to ensure a court case isn’t compromised in order to preserve a fair trial.

“It would be so much easier for me to just release the video, or just say, ‘Hey, so and so’s already admitted to this,’” Richardson said. “But I can’t do that. Because that dude (the defendant) deserves a fair trial.”

Richardson said they have released a handful of body camera videos in the past, but only after receiving the go-ahead from a judge.

He also pointed out the existing double standard that Neal commented on as well - body camera video isn’t subject to public record, but dashcam video is (so long as it doesn’t interfere with an investigation).

Stoughton agreed the different set of rules didn’t make sense.

“We end up with this weird mishmash that I don’t think is really defensible as a matter of public policy. It’s sort of an artifact of the legislative process,” Stoughton said. “But it’s not consistent public policy, which I think is room for improvement.”

However, when it comes to what level of body camera video should be released outside of what’s available now, everyone seems to have a different opinion. Stoughton thinks improvement doesn’t necessarily mean making video wide open and available for everyone.

“I think there’s a lot that happens that doesn’t necessarily need to be public record,” Stoughton said. “If the police come into my house because I’m reporting a burglary or something like that, I don’t necessarily want the images, the video of my house to be accessible to anyone who makes a public record request.”

House Bill 3665 would make a video involving an incident that resulted in a loss of life a public record in the Palmetto State. Some South Carolina legislators who are backing the bill say they’re hopeful it will be taken up and successfully passed during the upcoming session.

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