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SC reform group raises questions about Charleston Police video project

Published: Jun. 18, 2021 at 12:38 PM EDT|Updated: Jun. 18, 2021 at 8:08 PM EDT

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - The American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina is questioning the intention of the Charleston Police Department’s new “Critical Incident Briefing Project.”

Department officials said, in a press release from June 3, the project is “an effort to find ways to provide the public with further information regarding critical events that have occurred within the city.”

Specifically, these videos will focus on officer-involved shootings and could contain 911 recordings, dispatch recordings, photographs, maps, body worn camera footage and other information, according to CPD officials.

However, the executive director of the South Carolina chapter of the ACLU believes the videos are problematic.

“Footage should speak for itself, and so they should just release the footage and let the community look at it and decide for themselves what their own eyes see,” Frank Knaack said. “We shouldn’t have to have law enforcement editing and then narrating what the law enforcement perspective should be on that issue. It should really be up to the public to decide.”

Knaack said he believes these videos can give law enforcement the opportunity to police themselves and hide important details of incidents involving use of force.

“It’s deeply concerning we think we can trust CPD to do the right thing. They’ve shown time and again they are willing to create their own truth, which is far from what actually happened on the ground,” Knaack said.

The ACLU of SC has asked the Charleston’s city council to demand and change the rules around CPD’s policies for releasing footage of critical incidents. The main issue revolves around body camera footage. According to state law, footage recorded by an officer’s body-worn camera is not a public record. This means the same disclosure rules that provide for the release of other public records, like police reports, does not apply to body camera videos under the Freedom of Information Act. However, the law does not restrict law enforcement agencies from releasing the footage themselves.

“There’s been a number of documented incidents in South Carolina since that body cam law went into effect where police, not only failed to turn over that information, but they’ve also failed to turn on their body cams which they are actually required to do by the law when they engage in police/civilian encounters,” Knaack said. “By no means are police body cameras a solution to police violence or a solution to an unjust policing system that disproportionately targets black and brown people in our communities, but it is a step towards accountability or a step towards transparency. The notion that CPD can then come in and edit what that footage looks like and the story behind that footage is just so problematic.”

Knaack specifically mentioned use of force incidents involving officers like Walter Scott’s death and George Floyd’s death at the hands of police. He said video was crucial to holding officers accountable for their actions in those cases.

“The body cam law in SC came on the heels of Walter Scott. It was sold to the public as this transparency and accountability tool that would hold police officers accountable moving forward, but unfortunately they put a loophole in that for police which changed it from a transparency tool to shielding law enforcement from accountability when they exempted it from state FOIA laws,” Knaack said.

The Charleston Police Department said the goal of their Critical Incident Briefing Project is to provide case information with context.

“In developing this project, the aim of the department has been to achieve a fair and reasonable balance between the importance of disclosure and transparency, with the responsibility of honoring the independence, integrity, and clarity of the investigative process, and other important considerations for disclosure,” a press release stated.

The department has released just one Critical Incident Briefing video so far. It’s focused on an officer-involved shooing that occurred on Dec. 29, 2020 on North Romeny Street.

The video starts with an introduction from Sergeant Elizabeth Wolfsen.

“This briefing has been completed so that you may have a better understanding about the circumstances that led to this use of force by officers with the Charleston City Police Department” Wolfsen stated. “In an effort to provide transparency and allow residents to understand what happened during this incident this video will provide a synopsis and body-worn camera footage worn by our officers and 911 calls received about the incident.”

Later in the video, Wolfsen said the video contained raw and unedited footage from all of the officers’ body-worn cameras.

“Viewers are reminded that while body-worn camera footage is important in determining the facts surrounding an incident, often due to the positioning of an officer or the dynamics of a situation, critical information observed by the involved officer is not captured by the camera,” Wolfsen said.

The 9th Circuit Solicitor’s Office said it appeared the law enforcement officers reasonably believed their lives and the lives of others were in immediate danger.

“It was equally clear the suspect fired upon them first and continued to behave in a dangerous and reckless manner, threatening the lives of both law enforcement and the public at large,” the solicitor’s statement said.

Wolfsen said the Charleston Police Department determined, through its own internal administrative investigation, that all of the department’s policies and procedures were followed by the officers.

The Charleston Police Department released the following statement.

“The Critical Incident Briefing Video of the Bridgeview event contains the responding officers’ body camera footage from the time they arrived on site until the incident was over and the scene secured. For additional transparency, it also includes the related 911 calls, maps of the area, information about the independent SLED investigation that cleared the officers of wrongdoing, and more. CPD will continue to provide our citizens with complete, accurate reports about critical incidents as they occur in our area.”

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