Body camera bill advances (too late for Walter Scott)

Just thought I’d share this report from John Monk with y’all:

A bill that would fund and require body cameras for all South Carolina police officers was passed unanimously out of a SC senate committee Wednesday morning.

The bill is now headed to the full judiciary committee for another hearing next Tuesday.

The body camera bill was introduced in December by Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington. It already has had three hearings this year in a Senate Judiciary Committee subcommittee led by Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg.

The bill also has bipartisan backing, with co-sponsors including Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, and Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, as well as Sen. Paul Thurmond, R-Charleston, and Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley….

Would a body camera have prevented the Walter Scott shooting from happening? Yes, I think it would have…

51 thoughts on “Body camera bill advances (too late for Walter Scott)

  1. Juan Caruso

    Body cameras will be a net improvement in the long run, but problems will abound for years due to human and hardware fallibility. Resulting litigation and lucrative out-of-court settlements for dead batteries and missing archival frames will put the public on the hook for hundreds of $millions more than the cost of equiping each police department.

    The cameras will come with a very steep and expensive learning curve for SCs taxpayers. The bill that would fund and require body cameras for all South Carolina police officers should do what all (particularly senate) lawyers hate to do, limit recoveries in related civil suits.

    The elected geniuses who had failed to fund body cameras up to now, also failed to do something more fundamental and important for all South Carolina police officers: require applicants to obtain psychological profiles. i ask how Charleston was able to hire a nutjob from New Jersey without a psychlogical profile. Perhaps all new applicants should have to have a satisfactory psych profile providing they have a clean criminal background. Also, perhaps officers with clean records and at least 12 years of service should be exempt from body cameras except in situations ripe for precautionary use (e.g. crowd control).

    Sorry lawyers, the all or nothing approach is irrational and transparently self-serving.


    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Well… as a Brooks fan, I need to demur…

      I know what he means. The cameras bother me as a communitarian, and I think in the same way they bother Brooks.

      I want to trust cops. I want cops to know that I trust them. I think it’s important in a civil society to trust cops, and for them to know they’re trusted. And putting a camera on them is a way of saying that I distrust you so much that I’m going to set up an impersonal mechanism to watch every move you make.

      The intimate relationship thing that Brooks refers to — I read that within the context of community policing, where citizens are able to feel a level of comfort with the police, seeing them as people who are helping them achieve what they want for their community.

      As a newspaperman, I’m not supposed to be bothered by ANY sort of transparency, right? But cameras don’t just record what would happen without cameras; they affect what happens. (Which is one reason we want them — it’s hard to imagine Slager shooting Scott in that matter with a camera on.) People aren’t natural on camera; they play to the camera. The observer and the observed interact through the process of observation. Which means that, as long as that camera is on, no one will be able to interact normally with the cop as a human being.

      For that reason, when I was a reporter, I would do my best to be low-key, and not affect what was happening at the event I was covering. If I was covering a crowded event, I mixed with the crowd and kept my notebook hidden until I HAD to write something down. In that sort of situation, I was the camera, and I didn’t want to affect what happened any more than I had to.

      I’ve finally come to the conclusion that we need the cameras because we’ve reached a point where there is SUCH distrust that the cameras are likely to do more good than harm. But they’re going to add their own kind of tension to interactions; I’m just hoping they keep things from getting completely out of hand.

      Also, I think the cameras will back up the stories of most cops. Both The State and The Washington Post have recently done statistical analyses of police shootings, noting how rare it is for a cop to be charged, much less convicted. And you know, in some cases that’s probably because of a miscarriage of justice, as in the Scott case. But I think most of the time it’s because the cops were justified in shooting. And the cameras will show that.

      So yeah, I think we need them. But I dig where Brooks is coming from.

      1. bud

        it’s hard to imagine Slager shooting Scott in that matter with a camera on.

        Not that hard. Slager merely covers the camera lens up before shooting. Problem solved. For one thing in this day and age isn’t it pretty common for cameras to capture most things that go on? The cameras will help a bit but only a bit.

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      Also, taking off on your “it’s not personal” thing…

      I’ve made this point before, so bear with me.

      It’s one of my favorite films ever, so I hate to say this, but there’s a flaw in “The Godfather.” It leaves you with the impression that “It’s not personal; it’s strictly business” is what the Godfather himself, whether you’re talking Vito or Michael, lives by.

      It isn’t; not in the novel. In the book, there is this key passage in which Michael confides to Tom Hagen a core lesson he’s learned from his father: that while people in their world routinely say “it’s just business,” the key to the Don’s greatness is that he takes EVERYTHING personally. He’s like God taking note of the fall of a sparrow: It’s ALL personal. And Tom tells Michael to shut up because such truths aren’t to be spoken out loud.

      The closest the film comes to revealing this is in the meeting of the commission at which the old man makes peace with the Tattaglias. He makes all these reasonable concessions in the name of business. But then he draws a line, and tells them that if ANYTHING happens to Michael after he returns from Sicily — if lightning out of the sky strikes him — he is going to blame people in that room, and he is NOT going to forgive.

      It’s all personal.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        This theme was an obsession for Puzo. I think one reason he wanted to write about the Mafia was that it provided an opportunity to show people from an old Mediterranean culture in which everything was personal interacting with a Northern European “rule of law” culture.

        You see this theme most starkly in “The Fourth K,” which is about an American president whose daughter is kidnapped and murdered, on live TV, by terrorists. His reaction is to say screw the limitation of power under the Constitution, he is going to use every ounce of de facto power that he has as commander in chief to go after the terrorists, all their fellow travelers, and any regime that has in any way given them support or refuge.

        Because, you know, it’s personal…

      2. Bryan Caskey

        the key to the Don’s greatness is that he takes EVERYTHING personally.

        Yes, that’s correct. Here’s the passage you’re talking about:

        “Tom, don’t let anybody kid you. It’s all personal, every bit of business. Every piece of shit every man has to eat every day of his life is personal. They call it business. OK. But it’s personal as hell. You know where I learned that from? The Don. My old man. The Godfather. If a bolt of lightning hit a friend of his the old man would take it personal. He took my going into the Marines personal. That’s what makes him great. The Great Don. He takes everything personal Like God. He knows every feather that falls from the tail of a sparrow or however the hell it goes? Right? And you know something? Accidents don’t happen to people who take accidents as a personal insult.”

        In addition to the scene in the movie with the other Dons, the opening scene with Bonasera conveys the same idea. The Don chides Bonasera for not accepting his friendship. It’s definitely all personal for Vito. But that deeper meaning didn’t fit the point I was trying to make. 🙂

        However to continue on the Godfather, I’m not sure Michael takes this lesson of “Everything is personal” quite to heart, and becomes a colder, more “transactional” Don than his father was. I always felt like the shift in Michael was not when he killed Sollozo and the Police Captain, but when his Italian wife was killed. That separates him from Vito, who never suffered the death of a spouse. I think if Michael’s Italian first wife had lived and come with him to America, he would have been a different Don.

        But I digress…

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Yeah, I think I’d rather have Vito as a “friend” than Michael… Unless, of course, I really needed the heads of the other four families wiped out in one bold move…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        OK, so I didn’t remember it exactly right. Tom was telling him to shut up less because of the “everything is personal” revelation, and more because he was talking about killing…

  2. Doug Ross

    As Juan has noted the problem with the cameras will be in the implementation. Imagine the cost of storing, indexing, and retrieving body camera video. Imagine the potential failure points in that system. Imagine the legal wranglings that will occur – think of all the lawyers who challenge BAC readings – this will be 100 times worse. I agree with Juan that what we need is better policemen and not more data. Bad policemen will find ways to thwart the video capture (“Gee, I thought I had it turned on” or “Ooops, I spilled coffee on the camera”).

    This is a knee-jerk band aid solution that hasn’t been thought through fully. As usual.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      No, I think people are thinking it through — in the Legislature they are. From this morning’s story:

      But details need to be worked out.
      Issues not addressed in proposed legislation include how long to store recordings, whether officers not on patrol must wear cameras and when videos must remain private to protect victims and informants, law enforcement and legal advocates said.
      “When do you turn them on?” said Susan Dunn, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union in South Carolina. “You need to be consistent or people will say, ‘Why are you recording me now?’ ”
      Body-worn cameras on officers will not necessarily prevent another shooting like the one in North Charleston, a law enforcement leader said.
      “It’s not a perfect solution,” Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said. “But we should look for any improvement.”…

      1. Doug Ross

        “Thinking it through” means having the solution before proposing the bill. This is opening a huge can of worms that will likely have little impact but increase the tension between cops and the public.

        Why don’t we put body cameras on doctors to help prevent malpractice (which might occur more often than police brutality)? Or put them on teachers so we can know for sure that they are doing all they can to teach our children?

        Frankly, if we are going for body cameras, the FIRST people who should wear them at all time would be the members of the legislature. Any meeting should be public. Now THAT would have a real positive.

        1. Norm Ivey

          I think web cameras in the classrooms would be a great idea. Parents could check in in what’s being taught and how, and generally just stay better informed.

          The problem is that a classroom is a crowded place, and anyone checking in on their child or the teacher would also be viewing everyone else’s kids as well.

          1. Brad Warthen

            Really, Norm? You’d want the helicopter parents hovering right there in the classroom? I wouldn’t.

            I think “How was school today?” “Fine.” is plenty of interaction for most purposes.

            Parents need to chill. You know what? The whole world needs to chill, and stop trying to control everything that happens every second of every day…

            Trust teachers to teach. Trust your kids to learn — until they bring home a report card that indicates otherwise. Give everybody some space…

            1. Norm Ivey

              I’d like to have cameras in classrooms because some parents take an isolated negative incident, generalize about it, and then condemn the entire public school system. Those few parents are more vocal than those who have had positive experiences, and citizens without children in the system believe what they hear. With cameras, the public could see what actually goes on in classrooms I think schools would have a lot more support.

              I do trust teachers to teach. I just want everyone else to do the same.

            2. Doug Ross

              “The whole world needs to chill, and stop trying to control everything that happens every second of every day…”

              Who are you and what have you done with Brad?

            3. Brad Warthen Post author

              Oh, I’m always there. Parents are ridiculous these days with their hovering.

              Mind you, I think those “free range” parents in Maryland might ALSO need to chill, and stop using their kids to demonstrate their defiance of the system. But by and large I have sympathy for their cause. We need to let kids be kids. And let teachers teach. And let cops enforce the law without us sitting on their shoulders all the time.

              We can’t control everything. Policy decisions such as this are a matter of trade-offs; there is no perfect solution. I have problems with body cams, but reluctantly admit they may be necessary. Doesn’t make me happy with the solution…

        2. bud

          “Thinking it through” means having the solution before proposing the bill.

          Solutions come through trial and error, perhaps much error. It’s ridiculous to say we have to address EVERY potentiality before ANYTHING is done. That kind of micromanaging insures NOTHING will ever get done. Cameras are already here and proving effectiveness. Let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good (or even the slightly better).

              1. Bryan Caskey

                Because they provide a record of the proceedings. You know, so we don’t have to simply rely on conflicting testimony of a fairly important event.

            1. Bryan Caskey

              Uh, the problem where you have a dead person and a law enforcement officer who says: “Hey man, I had no choice. He pulled on me.

            2. Doug Ross

              So how often does that happen? And is it often enough to justify the cost of the cameras, the cost of storage, and the whole bureaucracy that will go with it? How much are we willing to pay for what is a fairly rare occurrence? Millions? Hundreds of millions?

              Michael Brown still would have been shot.

              1. Bryan Caskey

                So how often does that happen?

                I don’t know. But having someone shot and killed by a LEO is kind of a big deal, in my opinion. Some shootings are justified, some are not.

                And is it often enough to justify the cost of the cameras, the cost of storage, and the whole bureaucracy that will go with it?

                I’m not sure that it would be an enormous burden to implement. My initial thought is that each officer would wear some sort of small digital camera that is similar to a Go-Pro. It’s on during his shift. At the end of his shift, back at the station, the officer takes out the memory stick and uploads it to the central storage device. Doug, you’re the IT guy. You probably know more about data storage issues and costs better than anyone here, so you tell me what it would cost. I wouldn’t think it would be prohibitively expensive, but maybe I’m wrong. Drop some knowledge on me.

                How much are we willing to pay for what is a fairly rare occurrence? Millions? Hundreds of millions?

                Aside from shootings by LEOs resulting in death, there are lots of other instances where cameras would be useful. These include, but are not limited to, crowd control/protests, speeding tickets, and just generally knowing that the LEOs aren’t hanging out at Dunkin’ Donuts their entire shift. Asking how much it’s worth is certainly a legitimate question, but it’s certainly worth paying something. I can’t give you a hard number, but I think you would generally agree that there’s a cost-benefit analysis to do.

                Michael Brown still would have been shot.

                Ok, assuming that shooting was justified (because it’s been adjudicated as such) then a body camera probably would have prevented the false narrative of “hands up, don’t shoot”, the riots, the shootings, the property destruction, and all the other chaos that came out of that situation. People would have seen the video and said, “Oh, I guess this was a justified shooting.” and all the grand-standers would have been refuted by actual video. You’re forgetting the cameras work both ways. They protect good cops from being victims of mob-mentality and false narratives. If I was a cop, I’d want a camera.

                Wouldn’t you?

            3. Doug Ross

              ” Drop some knowledge on me.”

              Cameras are cheap, storage is cheap. The hardware component is trivial (except when we start getting into government procurement and agencies buy $5000 cameras because they have some “special” feature). The cost will come when you talk about the people required to implement the process. IT consultants will get rich, IT departments will have to be expanded. We’ll need project managers, trainers, programmers, clerks. Bureaucrats will have a field day creating policies and procedures. We’re talking tens of millions of dollars statewide.

              Now, regarding Michael Brown. Bryan – the next time you go hunting, why don’t you attempt to replicate the bod camera experience. Let’s see if you can shoot something and keep it in the video frame from start to finish. Now try that while running. I bet the results will be more Blair Witch Project than Spielbergian. Why do dashboard cameras work? Because they are mounted. Maybe instead of one camera, each cop should have a half dozen – head, back, chest, both hips pointing left and right. At that point, we may as well put them in Robocop armor.

              Maybe what we need is a separate ride along cameraman like they had on “Cops”. That would have a greater chance of producing decent video.

              1. Bryan Caskey

                Now, regarding Michael Brown. Bryan – the next time you go hunting, why don’t you attempt to replicate the bod camera experience.

                You don’t need Spielberg level production values – you just need to have a video. And you didn’t answer my question. Would you want a camera if you were a LEO?

            4. Doug Ross

              More questions:

              Will the cops turn off the cameras when talking with confidential informants or undercover cops? How about on stakeouts? Are they expected to turn them on and off?

              1. Bryan Caskey

                More answers: As long as the video is being kept in police custody, who cares? Police officers already submit written reports about their interactions with confidential informants and undercover officers. It’s not like this stuff is “off the books” now, it’s just that the police don’t let you browse through their files.

                I know I’ll never get you to say: “Yeah, ok. Maybe body cameras might be a good idea. Let’s give it a try.” But this is fun game.

                What else you got?

            5. Brad Warthen Post author

              Well… I DO think body camera footage of a confidential informant is problematic.

              The very fact that it exists, making it subject to someone grabbing a clip or a still from the camera and sharing it electronically, can put that CI’s life in danger.

              Video or any other information stored in digital form is just way too easy to propagate, and therefore much harder to protect.

              Even if a snitch comes up to a cop and says, “I need to tell you something. Turn that thing off,” THAT footage may be on the camera. Or a potential snitch may THINK it would be on camera, and therefore not approach the cop with valuable information.

              Forget “snitches.” I suspect that the camera, which any careful person will ASSUME is on whether it is or not, might inhibit a LOT of everyday witnesses of stepping up and sharing what they know. People are shy about getting involved at all; a camera would likely make them much more so.

              This would be the case even if cameras are only turned on under certain carefully delineated conditions. Their very presence can be inhibiting.

              I should stop. If I continue, I’ll be talking myself out of my conclusion that the cameras are on the whole a good thing…

              1. Bryan Caskey

                There might be a chilling effect on potential witnesses, but I’m willing to take the good with the bad on balance.

            6. Doug Ross

              Would I want a body camera if I were a cop? No. It would be more hassle that would hinder my ability to do my job. “Is it working?” “How do I do an upload?” “”Oh, my upload for the day failed. Have to go spend an hour with the IT department to get it fixed” “What happens when my wife calls me while I’m on duty to talk about our son’s drug problem?”

              And the main reason I wouldn’t need it is because I would be a good cop, not a bad one.

              1. Bryan Caskey

                Again, if you’re a good cop the camera protects you from being falsely accused. You get that, right?

            7. Doug Ross

              Then there will be all the video that will go viral when cops do all sorts of things – good, bad, funny, stupid… it just opens up all sorts of opportunity for criticism.

              As an example, here’s a dashboard cam video of a cop dancing to Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off”. 33 million views. Is that what we want from our law enforcement? I suppose it’s the natural progression toward the America seen in the movie “Idiocracy”.

              1. Bryan Caskey

                Your arguments are deteriorating. Who cares if cops do silly things? You’re losing the thread, here.

            8. Doug Ross

              My arguments aren’t deteriorating, they are expanding to cover a wider range of potential bad outcomes. The positive impact (reduced bad behavior by cops) is greatly outweighed by the negative impacts – cost, bureaucracy, morale of police force, public opinion of police, taking time away from actual police work, etc.

              1. Bryan Caskey

                I agree there will be a cost. What I’m not sure of is what that cost will be. I don’t know if having cameras is going to lead to a huge raft of bureaucracy – it shouldn’t. Seems like you could have a server added. My guess is that RCSD already has an IT guy. I’m not sure that it will hurt morale of the police. I haven’t seen any police organization saying that’s the case. In fact, it may actually increase morale, since good cops will know they have a way to demonstrate they are actually doing the job right.

                As for public opinion of the police, this isn’t a factor that weighs in your favor, Doug. Public opinion is pretty dang low if you ask me. I think the cameras would have the ability to show that most cops do the job the right way, which would help with public opinion. As for taking time away from actual police work, I kind of think that’s a non-issue. It’s not rocket science to take a memory card out and upload it.

                In any event, I’ve reached my limit in arguing with you about this, as I’m officially bored of this argument. Congratulations, you’ve won the argument via “Wife-ing” me into submission. I’m simply tired of arguing with you. 🙂

          1. Doug Ross

            Bryan, based on your “seems like server could be added” comment, I’ll have to suggest that you don’t attempt a career in IT. In return, I promise not to practice law. That’s like me suggesting that to fix the legal system, we just need to limit cases to 30 minutes.

    2. Bryan Caskey

      What do they do with the dashboard cameras (and the resultant video) from police cars now? I agree with Juan and Doug that there will be legal issues to resolve with the addition of cameras. However, you can handle these things if you have well-thought out statutes that deal with what happens if there isn’t video footage for some reason, when video cameras should be on, how data is collected, stored, who is it made available to, etc.

      We’re not building a rocket, here.

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        Plus, there’s the privacy standard that whatever can be seen from where the public may go is fair game…

  3. Brad Warthen Post author

    This release came across yesterday; I didn’t see it until today:

    S.C.’s Top Legal Group Backs Police Body Cam Bill
    April 15, 2015

    CONTACT: Mandy Pennington-Morris, 803-799-5097

    (COLUMBIA, SC) The South Carolina Association for Justice (SCAJ), the leading voice for plaintiff’s attorneys in the Palmetto State, on Wednesday formally endorsed a bipartisan bill in the State Senate that would require law enforcement officers to be equipped with body-worn cameras. SCAJ President Anthony Harbin issued the following statement regarding the Association’s decision to back the legislation:

    “No one works harder for the cause of justice than the police officers who risk their lives every day to preserve and protect the law. But recent events nationally and here in South Carolina have shown the need for reforms that would add greater accountability to law enforcement, and S. 47 is a good start.

    “This bill, in its current state, would not only strengthen false claims against police, but would also help resolve — and maybe even prevent — tragic cases like that of Walter Scott. Obviously this legislation is currently in the skeletal stage and there are still some details that need to be worked out, but this concept is something positive we should all get behind.”

    The South Carolina Association for Justice was founded over 50 years ago to serve advocates for those who are harmed by the actions of others and to strengthen the justice system through education and action. With a membership that spans all of South Carolina, SCAJ is a strong and growing organization fighting for fairness under the law. Visit for more information on the Association.

    # # #

  4. bud

    Doug raises some questions and yes there will be abuse and no the cameras are not a panacea. But it’s hard to believe the cost is that great and the net benefits so small that it won’t be justified. Having a record of police interaction with the public makes sense. You could substitute “gun” for “camera” in Doug’s various arguments and the same issues would apply. The difference is guns are legacy devices whereas the cameras are new.

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