Law enforcement agencies would have to demonstrate in court why they should not be required to release dashboard camera footage of a police shooting under legislation sent to the governor’s desk last week.
H. 3352 would clarify that any dashcam footage that shows an officer-involved incident “resulting in death, injury, property damage, or the use of deadly force” would be considered public information which can be released to media outlets or a citizen upon request.
Legislators approved the final bill unanimously in both the House and Senate last week.
The State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) usually refuses to release any officer-involved shooting video it is reviewing until that investigation is complete. However, the agency would have to get explicit permission from a judge to keep the video secret if Gov. Henry McMaster signs the new law into effect.
“It starts from the position that they are public, but provides for a circuit breaker for law enforcement to be able to seek relief in the courts,” lead sponsor State Rep. Weston Newton, R-Bluffton, said.
A spokesman for Gov. McMaster did not respond to an email Wednesday asking if the governor supported the bill. State law gives McMaster ten days to sign or veto the measure, or else it becomes law without his signature. Lawmakers ratified and sent the act to him on Monday.
The proposed law does provide exceptions to keep the footage secret if a judge agrees it would “interfere” with an investigation or deprive any individuals in the video of the right to a fair trial or impartial jury. It also allows a judge to block the video’s release if it created “an unreasonable invasion of personal privacy” or potentially identify an undercover source.
South Carolina lawmakers have tried to loosen the state’s open records laws in the aftermath of several high-profile police shootings, particularly after North Charleston officer Michael Slager shot and killed an unarmed Walter Scott as Scott tried to flee a traffic stop struggle in April 2015. Video by a bystander appeared to contradict Slager’s initial account of the shooting. Just three months later, a Seneca officer shot and killed 19-year-old Zachary Hammond in a restaurant parking lot as Hammond tried to flee a drug sting. SLED did not release video of the incident for three months, until after a lead prosecutor announced no charges would be filed against the officer.
Newton said improving the state’s open records laws are critical for regaining the public’s trust in government. “Transparency is at the very bedrock of good government,” he told South Carolina Radio Network. “And transparency is the key to accountability.”
The bill would also put time limits on when an agency must turn over documents requested under the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). It requires a circuit court judge schedule a hearing within 10 days if a lawsuit is filed because a public agency refuses to release any documents it considers exempt. It also requires a decision be rendered by the court within six months.