Images courtesy Charleston Police Department via YouTube

South Carolina law gives law enforcement wide discretion in the release of body-camera video, but Charleston police say a new initiative to release footage will provide the public with valuable information about officer-involved shootings and uses of force. Others say it gives police a chance to control the narrative around violent incidents and raises questions about how agencies will handle events where police act improperly.

Charleston Police Department announced its Critical Incident Briefing Project June 9, releasing a 17-minute video to local media that included 911 call audio and body-worn camera footage of police responding to reports of an armed man off North Romney Street around 3 a.m., Dec. 29, 2020. Twenty-eight year old Jason Cooper was shot and killed by police during the incident after he reportedly fired on officers as they arrived on scene.

The video starts with a uniformed member of the department’s public information team appearing on screen, providing context for the subsequent footage, captured on body-worn cameras worn by officers during the incident.

“This briefing has been completed so that you may have a better understanding about the circumstances that led to this use of force by officers with the Charleston city police department,” Sergeant Elisabeth Wolfson says. Before the footage rolls, Wolfson identifies Cooper as a convicted felon who was barred from possessing firearms.

Inspector Michael Gillooly, the department’s compliance and policy manager, helped build the Critical Incident Briefing Project, emulating departments across the country that have taken a similar approach. The department plans to produce briefing videos in-house for officer-involved shootings “where appropriate,” he said.

The point of the videos, Gillooly said, is to disclose as much information as possible about what was known leading up to the sequence of events.

“We want to release it in context of, ‘Hey, what did the officers know (from) the 911 call,’ that kind of stuff. So the public has an idea, from the perspective of (police), in context, of why this occurred and what the officers knew when they got on scene, or when they were driving,” Gillooly said.

Gillooly said Charleston is the first police department in South Carolina to produce critical incident videos. The Greenville County Sheriff’s Office has released at least nine videos since March 2019.

The formula is similar in Greenville County and other agencies across the country: A department representative introduces an incident and walks viewers through relevant information, including details about how body-worn cameras are operated by officers.

Charleston’s critical incident videos are being produced by department personnel, according to Gillooly. But In California, where transparency is mandatory, a cottage industry has sprung up to help agencies keep to the letter of the law. One consulting firm owned by former TV news reporters has contracted with 100 police agencies across the state to produce the video packages, according to The Mercury News in San Jose. One critic called the videos “slick marketing” to justify police actions.

The potential for that kind of spin prompts questions from Frank Knaack, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina.

“The notion that the agency involved in the action is then going to be the one editing and producing the content is highly problematic. The footage should just speak for itself. It should be released,” Knaack said.

South Carolina police are required to wear body cameras under a 2015 law passed after bystander video of the shooting death of Walter Scott by former North Charleston officer Michael Slager showed events that differed from the initial police account.

Knaack

But unlike written police accounts, under the law, body-camera videos that document  officers’ actions are not subject to South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act, another factor that gives police the upper hand when releasing information.

“This is just an opportunity for CPD to have a new propaganda tool to push out whatever they think is the narrative they want to control,” Knaack said. “Then, that’s the news story that’ll come out.”

Feedback on the project has been “supportive and positive” so far, Gillooly said, but going forward, he hopes to be able to 

speed up the production of the briefing videos.

As an attorney, Justin Bamberg has represented families of people shot and killed by police, including Walter Scott. As a Democrat in the state House of Representatives, Bamberg helped craft the 2015 body camera law.

He sees instituting a project like Charleston’s as one way to rebuild trust between police and the public overall and explain technical aspects of law enforcement for someone who’s not well-versed. But inevitably, Bamberg knows some incidents will be challenging for departments to manage.

Bamberg

“It’s easy to do one when it’s a fully justified shooting,” Bamberg said, “Where I think these critical incident (videos) are going to be tested (is) … Can they do them when law enforcement does something wrong?”

The videos may give law enforcement another tool to be able to control the release of information, Bamberg said. But for better or worse, that’s nothing new.

“At the end of the day, law enforcement always controls the narrative, period,” he said.

From his vantage point as an attorney, Bamberg said what has changed is that with more eyes on police — be it from agency cameras or eyewitness video — there’s more pressure than ever for the truth to come out.

“It got to the point where we’re going to control the narrative,” he said. “Because we’re going to work and find out what happened, and then where you won’t talk about it. We will.”

“The facts are the facts.”