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Senate passes body-camera bill, restricts access to video

COLUMBIA (AP) — The Senate passed a bill Wednesday that aims to eventually equip law enforcement officers across South Carolina with body cameras but restricts the public release of the videos.

The Senate, by a 41-3 vote, approved a measure directing the Criminal Justice Academy’s governing board to create body-camera guidelines within six months.

The guidelines would include which officers should wear cameras and how long data should be stored. State and local law enforcement agencies would then have three months to submit their own policies for council review.

The Legislature could reject the guidelines if lawmakers don’t like any of them.

The vote comes three weeks after a bystander’s video of a North Charleston police officer fatally shooting a black man as he ran away prompted the officer’s arrest for murder.

“What we did today will bring great reform to law enforcement as we know it,” said Democratic Sen. Marlon Kimpson, whose district includes portions of North Charleston. “We came away with a consensus that this state recognizes the need for greater transparency in the aftermath of a very tragic event.”

An amendment proposed by Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, bars law enforcement agencies from releasing body-camera video except in certain cases, including when it captures officers unlawfully using their weapons and there’s “heightened public interest.”

Bill Rogers, director of the South Carolina Press Association, said that’s overly restrictive and goes against the video’s purpose.

“Who can tell if there’s public interest if we don’t have access to the video?” he said. “You can’t let the cat investigate who ate the canary.”

The successful amendment broadened the bill’s exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act, initially limited to video filmed inside a private place, generally interpreted as meaning inside homes.

Massey argued against any video being subject to FOIA, saying it creates the potential of law enforcement agencies being inundated with broad requests for video.

“I can envision some type of Hollywood film crew issuing FOIA requests to the Highway Patrol for every body camera recording in the last six months,” he said. “That could cause a real problem.”

Sen. Greg Hembree, R-North Myrtle Beach, said could be solved with an agency asking for a narrower request. But other senators threatened to hold up the bill unless the privacy issues were addressed.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin argued blocking the bill would accomplish nothing other than blocking statewide guidance. Some law enforcement agencies in South Carolina already use body cameras, and more will regardless of the bill, Martin said.

The Senate Finance Committee’s budget proposal for 2015-16 includes $3.4 million for body cameras. That’s expected to equip 2,000 of the state’s more than 12,000 officers, plus pay for data storage. Legislators said more cameras will be bought through federal grants.

The House postponed debating its version of body-camera legislation until Thursday. It creates a study of law enforcement agencies in South Carolina that are already using body cameras.

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