In Focus: Body camera programs in South Carolina come at steep cost

Published: Aug. 10, 2021 at 8:00 AM EDT|Updated: Aug. 10, 2021 at 11:25 PM EDT
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MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WMBF) - Besides the bulletproof vest and badge, more and more police officers in South Carolina are suited up with body-worn cameras, and the programs can get expensive.

Over the years, millions of dollars in state funding have gone toward them, but it’s still not enough.

South Carolina’s 2015 body-worn camera law called for the creation of a fund to help pay for this equipment. The fund is established through the Department of Public Safety and funded through state appropriations from the General Assembly. Local law enforcement agencies, along with Attorney General’s Office, solicitor’s offices, and public defenders’ offices are able to apply to pay for their cameras and associated costs with these grants after applying and being approved for them.

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SCDPS said agencies have received over $15 million since the fund’s inception, but the actual receipt of these grants has been staggered over the years, forcing many agencies to rely on money from somewhere else before they can successfully receive reimbursements. As of fiscal year 2021, 259 eligible agencies have received funding, according to SCDPS. There are more than 300 law enforcement agencies in the state.

And besides this problem, a law enforcement agency isn’t even required to implement a body-worn camera program until it’s received full funding, according to the law.

“The South Carolina statute requires officers to wear body cameras, to be equipped with body cameras,” University of South Carolina law professor Seth Stoughton explained. “However, that’s conditioned on the state legislature funding the acquisition of that equipment. And thus far, they haven’t.”

WMBF Investigates found that many police departments in the Grand Strand and Pee Dee had to either buy the equipment themselves, only to have some of it reimbursed, while others used the grant money and supplemented it with local budgets.

Other, typically smaller, agencies said they were able to cover the costs solely by money received from the state fund.

But for larger departments, the money needed can be astronomical.

The Florence County Sheriff’s Office is quite possibly one of the last of the larger agencies that are just now able to get the money to pay for the equipment.

“So many agencies are left without the funding,” Florence County Sheriff TJ Joye said. “For a five-year contract, there’s a million dollars for these cameras. And that’s expensive, you know, venture when you’re trying to keep officers on the road and equipment updated.”

The body camera program was something the newly-elected sheriff was adamant about making happen for his office. It took funding not just from the Department of Public Safety but further appropriations found by working with state legislators.

“We have to have them; no question,” Joye said. “It’s time for us to move forward and we’ve done just that.”

The actual expense of the cameras, however, pales in comparison to the storage capacity required to run an agency’s program.

“The cost of video storage is the biggest cost... it’s very expensive to store footage,” said Bryce Peterson, a principal research associate for Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center. “A good body camera policy would mean that they’re turning it on anytime they interact with a community member, which again, is more and more and more footage.”

Stoughton said there are recurring costs besides the cost of this “digital storage infrastructure,” like the replacement of broken units.

“All of that takes money that a lot of our agencies just don’t have,” he said.

Fifteenth Circuit Solicitor Jimmy Richardson explained that some video has to be kept for a long time.

“Depending on what is being looked at, you may have to keep that stuff for 60, 70 years,” Richardson said. “And even though it’s never going to be seen again, it takes up storage somewhere.”

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Stoughton said the General Assembly needs to not only fully fund these cameras, but pay for more studies on how these tools can be best used in South Carolina.

“My wish list really only has two pieces: fund body-worn cameras, and require the development of substantive technical guidance that agencies can get a lot of meaningful use out of, as they’re adopting a body-worn camera system. That’s it,” Stoughton said.

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