Knaack (left), Parks | Provided

A state law mandating body cameras after Walter Scott’s murder by the North Charleston Police Department was sold to the public as a tool to strengthen police accountability and community trust. In the five years since, law enforcement has turned it into a tool to shield law enforcement officers from accountability.

The Charleston Police Department is no exception. On Dec. 29, Charleston Police Department (CPD) officers shot and killed Jason Cooper, a Black man. Despite claims that the CPD would be transparent around the investigation, calls on CPD to release its officers’ body camera footage have been denied.

While we don’t yet know what happened at the scene that morning, we do know that Black people are stopped, arrested, convicted and incarcerated at staggering rates compared to white people — and they are more likely to be harassed, shot and killed by the police. Police body cameras cannot fix a policing system that was designed, since the beginning, to oppress Black communities.

But, if CPD and our city leaders are going to call body cameras a police accountability tool, then they must make them an accountability tool guided by strong policies.

CPD’s decision to deny access to the body camera footage is deeply troubling, but unfortunately it’s consistent with other law enforcement agencies in South Carolina. As Greenville County Sheriff Johnny Mack Brown stated in 2019: “It’s our body camera. It’s our decision whether or not to give them out.”

When law enforcement has the power to protect themselves instead of serving the public interest, it undermines the very purpose of deploying body cameras in the first place. Such a policy turns body cameras from a transparency and accountability tool into a police public relations tool, as only favorable videos will be consistently released.

How does this happen? It dates back to the law passed by the state legislature five years ago. Under the law, “[d]ata recorded by a body camera is not a public record subject to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.” CPD has chosen to use the state’s loophole to shield body camera footage from public disclosure. This isn’t transparency or accountability, and it’s especially troubling when it comes to the loss of somebody’s life.

Despite this lack of transparency, Charleston City Council recently allocated an additional $158,000 to CPD for its body camera program. This is unacceptable. Before allocating any funds to CPD for its body camera program, Council must bring transparency and accountability to the program. Specifically, Charleston leaders must ensure CPD’s body camera policy includes the following mandates:

  • Body cameras must be turned on whenever a law enforcement officer is responding to a call for service and that the recording is not discontinued until the encounter has concluded and the officer leaves the scene.
  • Appropriate disciplinary action must be taken against an officer who fails to follow recording and retention requirements.
  • Prohibit recording First Amendment protected activity, including peaceful protests, unless related to a call for service or other law enforcement action.
  • All videos depicting any police use of force or alleged police misconduct must be released to the public upon request; where a video depicts a member of the public being killed, shot by a firearm, or grievously injured by an officer, such video should be released within five days of a request.
  • No law enforcement officer may review or receive an accounting of any body camera footage until they have completed their initial reports, statements or interviews (with certain exceptions).
  • Require comprehensive and uniform retention that clarifies what happens to the video/audio from the body cams, where it is stored, how long it is stored and who has access to it.
  • Video redaction may be used to protect privacy, but only where the redaction does not interfere with a viewer’s ability to fully, completely, and accurately comprehend the events captured on the video footage.

CPD’s current body camera policy falls far short on these basic requirements.

Body cameras are not a solution to police violence. As we have seen across the country, the introduction of police body cameras has not stopped police violence. For example, on May 31, Charleston Police Department, along with a number of additional South Carolina law enforcement agencies, engaged in mass police violence against people peacefully protesting against police violence.

The CPD’s decision to hide body camera footage from public disclosure is yet another reminder that Charleston City Council must take immediate steps to ensure CPD has a strong body camera policy.

Then, if the Council is really concerned with the eradication of police violence, it must also reduce the size, scope and role of law enforcement and invest in our communities. That is how we will make our communities safer and stronger.

Frank Knaack is executive director of the ACLU of South Carolina and Joshua Parks is co-founder of Lowcountry Action Committee.