Those of you who frequent this news outlet are well aware of my staunch support for law enforcement. Well, let me rephrase that … I believe law enforcement is a core function of government. Protecting life, liberty and property is central to the establishment and preservation of a safe, secure society – one in which every citizen is allowed to pursue happiness and prosperity to the best of their abilities.
If we lose sight of this elemental truth, we surrender to chaos.
In supporting law enforcement, though – especially assets aimed at bringing down corrupt leaders – it is important to remember there is a “circle of accountability.” In other words, those tasked with holding others accountable must themselves be held accountable.
Figuring how to do that is not easy, but it is essential …
One of the most important questions a news outlet can ever ask is “who is guarding the guardians?”
Anyway, in supporting law enforcement as a core function of government I have always championed accountability for those in the profession. Hell, half of the sheriff’s scandals in this state over the last few years broke exclusively on this news outlet – and I used those scandals to call for mandatory minimums for misbehaving elected officials.
In advocating for accountability in this arena, one key transparency reform that must be adopted involves the release of footage from body worn cameras.
Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley made a big deal about passing a body camera law in 2015 following the fatal shooting of 50-year-old Walter Scott by former North Charleston, S.C. police officer Michael Slager – however the law she championed did not require agencies to release this footage.
That decision remains solely at the discretion of each individual law enforcement agency.
What was the point of the law? Good question …
“The law signed by Haley was laden with loopholes,” I noted in 2019. “For starters, the key question of which law enforcement personnel were required to wear the cameras – and when – was left exclusively to local law enforcement to determine based on ‘guidelines’ promulgated by a state training council.”
Additionally, no penalties were provided for failure to wear the cameras – nor for deleting recordings – and there was no requirement that the cameras be operational during encounters with the public. Oh, and in the rare event a police body camera captured something significant – law enforcement agencies were shielded from having to release videos from the devices under the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Now, do I trust law enforcement agencies in South Carolina to release body cam footage in a manner consistent with the interests of truth and justice?
Some of them … sometimes. But sometimes isn’t good enough. In matters of life and death, “sometimes transparency” just doesn’t cut it …
Last month, the Florence County, South Carolina sheriff’s office took an important step toward setting a precedent for transparency when it released body camera footage from a fatal officer-involved shooting at the Southern Pines mobile home community located just south of Florence, S.C.
“This video is not subject to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act and there is nothing to legally compel us to release it to the public at this time,” Florence sheriff TJ Joye said. “We have discretion to release it, however, and we are releasing the video today as a part of our effort to be transparent.”
While the incident in question remains under investigation by the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division (SLED), the Florence footage depicted what certainly appeared to be a justifiable use of deadly force.
Which cynics (like me) would say is the only reason Florence released it …
Still, the precedent is what matters here. In Florence county, at least, an expectation has been set that this footage will be released – good or bad.
Let’s fast-forward now to this week, when a police officer from the town of Hemingway engaged in a high-speed chase with an unarmed subject. This chase ended in a vehicular accident and an officer-involved shooting that left the subject dead.
WANT MORE NEWS?
As it does in the vast majority of officer-involved shootings in South Carolina, SLED is investigating this incident – and it is important to let the agency finish its work before jumping to conclusions.
But as SLED does its job, I believe we should expect full transparency from the law enforcement agencies involved in this incident – whether it be the town of Hemingway (whose officer fired the fatal shots) or the sheriff’s deputies who responded to the scene.
In other words, they should release all video and audio in their possession from this incident so the public can see what transpired …
As I have previously noted, my news outlet has consistently called for body cameras and microphones to be placed on all law enforcement officers during the time when they are on duty. Actually, I took it a step further – arguing in favor of a “centralized network of law enforcement monitoring” that preserves the audio and video from these devices in perpetuity.
“Under this system all cops – local, state and federal – would be fitted with body cameras and microphones,” I wrote. “These cameras and microphones would go ‘live’ the second an officer goes on duty, streaming content directly to a central statewide repository – one manned 24/7/365 by a representative of the state’s chief executive, attorney general’s office and a designated victim’s advocate.”
In the event an allegation against an officer were made, all one would need to do is “check the tape.”
In pushing for such a system, I noted it would not only “protect citizens from bad cops, but also protect good cops from false allegations of improper conduct.”
Which is also very important …
Sadly, South Carolina remains a long way from this ideal … but the law enforcement agencies involved in this latest incident can move us all one step closer by releasing the footage from this incident.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven children. And yes, he has LOTS of hats (including that Chicago Blackhawks’ lid pictured above).
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