A bystander’s video last week showed a South Carolina policeman shooting a fleeing suspect in the back. That video is the best argument yet for police themselves to wear cameras, and for video from those cameras to be as accessible as possible to the public.
Here in Florida, though, some members of your state Legislature want to keep police camera videos from public inspection. They claim it’s for our own good, which of course it isn’t.
But back to South Carolina for a moment. White North Charleston police officer Michael Slager was charged last week with murder, days after shooting unarmed black suspect Walter Scott in the back following a traffic stop. Slager wasn’t wearing a body camera, but a bystander took video. It showed Scott running from Slager. Slager drew his weapon and fired eight times, hitting Scott five times at close range.
North Charleston police charged Slager and fired him shortly after seeing the video, which contradicted Slager’s version of the incident. North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey also said the city would immediately buy 150 more cameras for its officers to wear.
Police cameras clearly make for better law enforcement. During the first year police started wearing cameras in Rialto, California — one of the few places where use of cameras has been studied — the number of complaints filed against officers fell by 88 percent compared to the year prior. Use of force by officers fell by 60 percent during the same period, according to The New York Times.
You don’t have to go to California for evidence that police cameras work. Daytona Beach police began wearing the cameras in 2012. As Police Chief Mike Chitwood explained last fall, “The video cameras will protect everyone: the city from baseless lawsuits, the officers from false accusation and the public from police misconduct.”
The cameras are especially helpful at sorting out the facts in situations where police use force.
At 3 a.m. on Sept. 25, 2013, Daytona Beach police responded to a call at a residence and found former football star Jermaine Green holding a knife to a woman’s neck. When he began to plunge the knife into the woman’s chest, police shot Green several times.
The public knows precisely what happened during the incident because the police were wearing cameras and caught the entire scene on video.
But if the Legislature passes the proposed Senate Bill 248, it’s likely that Daytona Beach police would not be able to quickly — or ever — release a video similar to the one that showed Green attempting to stab a woman just before police shot him.
That’s because the proposed bill exempts from the public’s view any police video “taken within the interior of a private residence.” Also, the bill would also exempt video “taken in a place that a reasonable person would expect to be private.” Whatever that means.
Republican State Rep. David Santiago of Deltona was one of the sponsors of the House bill that mirrors SB 248. When I spoke to him about the bill last week, he said, “There’s no intent here to hide anything from anybody.”
He pointed out that some law enforcement agencies were supporting the bill, which would also make it so those agencies could dispose of video 90 days after it’s taken.
I pointed out that the bill would appear to make it illegal for police to release videos such as the one of Green because it was inside a private residence. Santiago said he would do some more research.
I hope he does, and soon. SB 248 is moving quickly through the Senate, and could move quickly through the House as well. It needs to be derailed.
Police have started deploying body cameras to provide more public transparency and oversight of officers, and to protect officers from unjust accusations. That’s laudable.
As First Amendment Foundation Executive Director Barbara Petersen so aptly puts it, state lawmakers should not now pass a bill “to fix a problem that doesn’t exist.”
Rice is The News-Journal’s editor. His email is Pat.Rice@news-jrnl.com.