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Local police departments discuss pros, cons of body cameras and their challenges

Shelby County Sheriff's Department SRO Joseph Fox displays the departments new body cameras that officers are now wearing.
Shelby County Sheriff's Department SRO Joseph Fox displays the departments new body cameras that officers are now wearing. TNS

As a national debate over the pros and cons of police officer body cameras rages on, several local departments have quietly implemented the new technology and learned the value of video footage.

Police in Myrtle Beach, Surfside Beach and North Myrtle Beach use body cameras, while Conway and Horry County police are still developing policies and searching for funding for the devices. The departments that now employ body cameras say the footage has been helpful during questionable situations.

“You’re allowed to see the incident from the officers viewpoint, not only the persons actions, but the tone everything was said in and the stance of the suspect,” said Lt. Joey Crosby with Myrtle Beach police. “They’ve been a positive for us.”

Myrtle Beach police implemented body cameras on bicycle and beach officers about a year ago since they could not record video with a dashboard camera, Crosby said. The bicycle cameras allowed the department to research and test body cameras before implementing them to every officer late last year, Crosby said.

“The perception is that body cameras are new for law enforcement, but for Myrtle Beach police it’s nothing new,” he said.

With an increasing number of police departments adding body cameras for their officers, authorities are faced with concerns over such issues as whether to limit public access to the recordings, costs related to storing the footage, and policies regarding camera use.

Myrtle Beach Police Department has about 205 cameras and has budgeted for several replacements in case any break, Crosby said. Officers download their video footage daily usually within a few minutes, he said.

He said the department hasn’t received many Freedom of Information Act requests for body camera videos, but the department is prepared to meet those demands if they ever increase, Crosby said.

Officers are trained to activate their camera before any interaction, similar to how dashboard cameras are activated before police pull someone over, he said. Myrtle Beach officers have been trained to switch on the little camera according to policy because they’ve been using them for some time, Crosby said.

“We’ve adjusted to them already,” he said.

Surfside Beach police officers started using body cameras at 6 p.m. April 7, they saw the benefit of them within the first hour of use, Chief Rodney Keziah said.

An excessive force complaint was filed by family members of a man arrested at 6:50 p.m. that day.

“We did get a complaint of the way the guy was treated and once they saw the video, the family was like ‘we are very sorry,’” Keziah said.

Surfside Beach purchased 23 body cameras for every officer and those who work part-time, he said.

Surfside Beach officials also considered software issues with the use of various systems, and went with the same company that provides their in-car cameras and video other recording needs.

“We have integrated these with our new in car system. We use the same storage and server. It’s a lot easier to have everything in one place,” Keziah said. “I can search a file number and get the body camera, in car camera the front camera and rear camera. Storage for 23 body cameras and 9 in-car cameras are a lot less than Myrtle [Beach Police Department] where they have 200 deployed.”

Keziah said he saw the cameras during a chief’s conference in October and decided the town needed to invest in them.

“It’s transparency. It helps decrease the liability for the town,” he said.

The cameras are “not much different than the in-car camera,” Keziah said. “It will give a different perspective.”

“With the small volume we have that’s not going to be a big financial or resource for us. It will be absorbed into our current resources.”

Conway City Council approved police officials to order 52 body cameras in the upcoming budget. Officials also applied for a grant to help cover storage costs.

Conway’s cameras are on order and will arrive sometime in July, but they will not be used until some best practices are adopted by the department, said Lt. Selena Small, police spokeswoman.

Officials are waiting for the Municipal Association of South Carolina and the state’s Law Enforcement Training Council to develop best use and practices before the cameras will be used.

There will be a camera for every sworn Class One officer in the department.

“Every officer will have their own and we will have spares in case something happens,” Small said referring to cameras being assigned to every officer even the chief. “All officers will have access to a camera if they need one.”

The number also will allow officers to download their videos at the end of their shift and not slow the oncoming shift because they are waiting for a camera, she said.

Conway officials also are watching legislators and a bill that could regulate the cameras and their storage, she said.

The cost for storage and having someone sort through footage for a FOIA is something 15thCircuit Solicitor Jimmy Richardson said he has concerns about with the cameras.

“From our standpoint we would see a benefit . . . people are far less likely to believe unless they see,” Richardson said. “I think it’s good to capture it, it will protect the officer and the citizen.”

“But it’s going to cost an extremely large sum of money,” Richardson said.

In his research, Richardson said he found that the City of Charlotte projected their start-up costs for storage and providing video through FOIAs to be $8 million.

Richardson likened the body camera footage to a cellphone plan, where the phone is inexpensive compared to the costs of data plans, texting and other add-ons.

“The story is going to be extremely expensive and well beyond my budget and [Horry County Police Chief] Saundra Rhodes’ budget,” Richardson said and noted how long should footage be kept.

Richardson also gave the example of a shooting where four detectives and two patrol officers are all wearing body cameras and are at a scene for four hours. Then the footage is sought by a news organization and someone has to sit down and watch all the footage from each officer’s camera for that shift and edit it to the specific request.

“That’s a whole day’s work right there,” Richardson said.

Horry County police have asked county council for funding to implement a body camera pilot program in the near future, said Lt. Raul Denis, public information officer for the department.

The department is calculating how much the cameras, software and hardware will cost the county to implement and run daily, Denis said. The question is: who will pay for the program, and for how long?

Denis said he’s in support of the program, especially for its evidential value.

“Police departments have to deal with a lot of questions after an incident,” he said. “Even victims sometimes forget what they tell police, and they argue, so cameras would solve a lot of those problems.”

The cameras offer up challenges besides the high costs, Denis said. Additional training, downloading times and precise labeling are needed to ensure all video files are stored correctly. How police release the videos to the public or media and what information to redact is still undetermined as well.

“It’s just a huge scope of issues that have never been dealt with before, because it’s new to law enforcement,” Denis said.

Contact TONYA ROOT at 444-1723 and follow her on Twitter @TonyaRoot.

Contact CLAIRE BYUN at 626-0381 and follow her on Twitter @Claire_TSN.

Police body camera bills gain support from S.C. politicians

South Carolina lawmakers are preparing to tackle bills that would require all police officers statewide to wear clip-on body cameras, but details must still be worked out.

Equipping officers with body-worn cameras has the support from top politicians, including Gov. Nikki Haley, and state police and legal groups, including the S.C. Law Enforcement Officers’ Association, S.C. Sheriffs’ Association and S.C. Bar.

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. Bills calling for police to wear body-worn cameras were filed in the S.C. House and Senate in December, sparked by anger over the deaths of a pair of unarmed men at the hands of police officers in Missouri and New York.

The proposals landed in the spotlight again after North Charleston police officer Michael Slager shot and killed Walter Scott after a traffic stop on April 4. A video released three days later contradicted Slager’s claim that Scott had taken his stun gun, leading authorities to charge the officer with murder.

Information from Andrew Shain, The (Columbia) State

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