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Transparency is under the rug

  • Bill Rogers

Police across South Carolina and America have spent millions of dollars on officer body cameras. But The New York Times just reported that a rigorous study released last week shows that these cameras have almost no effect on officer behavior.

The 18-month study of more than 2,000 police officers in Washington found that officers equipped with cameras used force and prompted civilian complaints at about the same rate as those who did not have them, the Times reported.

They reported that “though body cameras are now in greater use, their purpose is often left undefined, raising thorny questions about surveillance, privacy and other issues.”

“Police departments have been rushing to body cameras without sufficiently deciding what the goal is,” said Seth Stoughton, a former officer and a law professor at the University of South Carolina who has studied the devices extensively. “When no one is sure what it is supposed to do, no one knows if it is working.”

In South Carolina, videos from body cameras are exempt from release under the Freedom of Information Act. Our Legislature carved out an exemption by saying they are not public records. Excuse me, but they should be open in certain cases.

I see the privacy concerns, but in instances of the use of force by police officers, the prompt public release of these videos would go a long way in building public trust of police.

The Times ended its story: “But the original purpose of cameras — transparency and accountability — could ultimately get swept under the rug.”

In South Carolina, transparency is already under the rug.

Bill Rogers is executive director of the S.C. Press Association.

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