Initial reports of a Saturday morning shooting off Craig Road in North Charleston gave few indications that the incident would soon garner national attention.
North Charleston Police reported it as a traffic stop gone wrong: the suspect 50-year-old Walter Scott fled on foot after Patrolman 1st Class Michael Slager stopped him for a brake light being out. Slager pursued and eventually caught up to Scott. The officer said the two struggled for a bit before he fired his Taser at Scott to subdue him. Police said Scott grabbed the Taser and Slager shot him, killing the other man. Slager released his own statement on Monday saying he felt threatened and believed he followed proper procedures before using deadly force. Scott was later revealed to be wanted on a family court arrest warrant.
But things changed quickly just three days later. A 1:00 p.m. Tuesday press briefing by North Charleston Police was originally announced to media as an opportunity for the department to give more information about the situation. But then rumors began trickling out: there was cell phone video of the shooting, it was in the possession of Scott’s family, and it showed a very different account of what happened. The press conference was delayed until Tuesday evening.
The rest, as they say, is history.
The disparity between the officer’s account of what happened and the video shot by a witness Feidan Santana is renewing a call among African-African legislators for South Carolina police officers to wear body cameras. A bill requiring all officers to carry the cameras appeared dead for the year just two weeks ago after legislators became stuck on the complicated regulations over when the cameras would need to be turned on and how the resulting footage would be stored.
A special Senate hearing on the bill is now scheduled for April 15 in Columbia.
By coincidence, the bill’s primary sponsor State Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, also happens to represent the area where Scott was killed. Kimpson had filed the bill last December and pushed for its passage throughout the session.
Kimpson said the shooting “underscores” the need for body cameras. “Absent the footage shot by the bystander, a warrant would not have been issued (for the officer),” Kimpson told South Carolina Radio Network. “He would not have been terminated from his job and he would not have been arrested. The video camera evidence changed things.”
North Charleston mayor Keith Summey said Wednesday that he has ordered the city to purchase an additional 150 body cameras in response to the incident. When combined with the 101 cameras the city was already planning to buy through a grant, every officer would now be equipped, Summey said.
Police in Charleston and Columbia, as well as sheriff’s departments in Spartanburg and Sumter counties are among the other jurisdictions that are beginning to use the cameras. But even officers at those agencies say they are hesitant to support a kneejerk law making the cameras mandatory.
SC Sheriffs Association executive director Jarrod Bruder said different departments need discretion to set their own rules regarding the cameras. For instance, he said, small town departments with only a few officers may have the same officers perform traffic stops and participate in sensitive investigations such as rape cases or home visits.
“That’s really just a local decision that agency, that sheriff, or that chief… needs to have the discretion to be able to implement them as they see fit,” he told South Carolina Radio Network. “I don’t know that we’re going to be able to craft legislation that will be able to fit an agency the size of Charleston County and a one-man department in Dillon.”
There’s also the issue of cost, he said, both for the cameras themselves and the storage space to keep thousands of hours of video. Body cameras themselves can cost between $150-$1,200 depending on the quality, Bruder said. The storage cost would depend on how the cameras are used and how long it is kept on file.
But Kimpson said body cameras may be a way for the public, particularly African-Americans who feel they are being profiled, to gain confidence in the police. “Transparency and accountability are the… reasons why people have confidence in the system,” he said. “And our system was shaken (Tuesday). People’s hopes were crippled and their spirits broken.”
Kimpson said he is willing to make changes to his bill. But he does believe statewide standards are needed, particularly for smaller departments where he believes abuse is more likely.
His sentiments were echoed by other members of the Legislative Black Caucus during a press conference Thursday. “We should explore the use of body cameras as a means of accountability here in the state of South Carolina,” State Rep. John King, D-Rock Hill.
But Bruder warned that body cameras are likely not “the end-all” to solve tension between police and the African-American community. “I think it’ll actually create a situation where the only thing will be trusted is what can or cannot be proven on the video,” he said. “And law enforcement officers may lose credibility based on that.” He cited the hundreds of DUI charges already tossed out each year in South Carolina because video of the traffic stop was not recorded properly.
If the bill is taken up, legislators would have relatively little time to address it. Statehouse rules require a bill to get at least three floor votes in either the House or Senate by May 1 in order to be taken up for the year. Since Kimpson’s body camera legislation is in subcommittee now, it would need to advance through Wednesday’s hearing, then the Senate Judiciary Committee, and finally receive two more votes on the Senate floor in just a little over two weeks.
State Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, had previously filed legislation in the House that would create a committee to study the issue and return with recommendations for next year’s session.