S.C. police body cam funds go to all — including oyster officers

Body camera, left, and controller.
Body camera, left, and controller. Taser

After a bystander’s video last year showed a white North Charleston police officer shooting and killing a fleeing, unarmed black man, widespread outrage spurred South Carolina lawmakers to vote in favor of police body cameras, and to come up with $5.8 million to pay for cameras and data storage.

Now that the money is being distributed, it’s flowing to every agency that applied – including one that monitors oyster health and scrutinizes pharmacists, according to a list provided to The Associated Press.

Yet while many small agencies got every dollar they applied for, the state Department of Public Safety is getting less than one-sixth of its request: $240,900 to put cameras on about half of the agency’s 974 troopers, transport police and Statehouse officers. It provides nothing for storing the video, said Sgt. Bob Beres.

State economic advisers had estimated it would cost $21.5 million to equip all of South Carolina’s state and local law officers in the first year, then $12 million annually for maintenance and data storage.

Until the fatal confrontation in North Charleston, questions about storage, privacy and cost had repeatedly delayed any vote on legislation requiring officers to record their public interactions on body cameras.

In April 2015, 50-year-old motorist Walter Scott was shot and killed by North Charleston officer Michael Slager, reigniting a national debate about the treatment that blacks face at the hands of white police officers.

Slager was swiftly fired and charged with murder. He is set to go on trial Oct. 31.

Compromise legislation signed in June 2015 required all of South Carolina’s roughly 300 state and local law enforcement agencies to adopt policies on body cameras approved by the state’s Law Enforcement Training Council. But it specified agencies don’t have to follow the policies until they receive “full funding.”

Legislators called the $5.8 million a start. They left distribution to the council.

All 168 agencies that applied got something, including four solicitors’ offices, Ports Authority police and public safety agencies at four airports and 16 colleges.

Amounts ranged from $450 for the one officer in tiny Trenton – population 200 – to $304,500 for the Sumter Police Department, which will buy cameras for all 121 officers, plus a few extra and 150 terabytes of video storage.

“This is our only bite at the apple,” Sumter Police Chief Russell Roark said. “So we didn’t want to buy just enough. We wanted to have everybody covered.”

The council – which includes legislators, sheriffs and state law enforcement directors – wanted to spread the limited money as fairly as possible, so it focused on departments with the fewest officers that likely can’t buy cameras otherwise, said state Sen. Greg Hembree, a council member. He said the council set the parameters without discussing individual agencies.

Among the top recipients of the limited cash is the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Its $135,100 grant will outfit its 32 armed officers in the divisions of drug control, shellfish monitoring and investigating environmental crimes such as illegal dumping, said agency spokesman Robert Yanity.

Hembree said he knows “it seems funny” to put cameras on the officers who oversee shellfish harvesting.

“But if you go out and mess with somebody’s crab pots, you might be surprised at the level of violence you can encounter,” said Hembree, R-North Myrtle Beach, a former prosecutor who says he knows how local fishermen can react. “You’re messing with their livelihood, and it gets ugly fast.”

The drug control division inspects pharmacies, hospitals and doctors’ offices to enforce proper handling of prescription drugs.

Meanwhile, the grants distributed to prosecutors will mainly buy video storage.

“In the old days, we’d get a file from the police. We might have a sleeve in the back with photographs and maybe a cassette tape. Now everything is digital, and all that stuff has to be stored somewhere,” sometimes for decades, said Solicitor Kevin Brackett, chief prosecutor for York and Union counties.

He’s getting his full $100,000 request, though he’s not sure how many years’ worth of storage that will buy.

Other solicitors are using their grants partly to pay people to review and prepare the video.

Hembree said he expects more departments to apply next year.

“We have a long way to go,” he said. “I’m ready, willing and eager to put more money in the budget.”