Video from the dash cameras in police cars should routinely be available to the public, but in South Carolina that is not the case.
By refusing to release the video in the high-profile case of a police shooting, the public gets a horrible message. It is a message that has people marching in the streets around the nation. It sends a message that the police and courts keep secrets to protect their own.
The tape in question shows a public servant acting on the public's behalf at the public's expense. It apparently shows a white police officer shooting a 68-year-old black man to death while he sat in his car in his driveway. The shooting followed a 9-mile chase that started with the officer's suspicion of drunk driving.
The State Law Enforcement Division claims releasing the tape would hamper the police officer's right to a fair trial. He faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of misconduct in office and discharging a firearm into an occupied vehicle.
Sorry, but the public is not buying that argument. And police in an orderly society cannot afford to be seen as the investigator, prosecutor, judge and jury. And cameras will play the single most crucial role in restoring lost trust.
Recent police shootings have stirred a demand for more video accountability, not less. A call has arisen, even in the South Carolina Legislature, for more police to wear body cameras.
But, again, even this forward move is being held back by the incessant urge for secrecy.
A bill passed by the state Senate includes this: "Data recorded by a body-worn camera that is retained by a law enforcement agency in connection with an ongoing criminal investigation or internal investigation is not a public record and is exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act."
Virtually anything that takes place with a police officer can be labeled an "ongoing investigation." And the police are the ones making that determination, which frequently results in information that the public has a right and need to know being withheld.
S.C. Press Association attorney Taylor Smith says if the Senate bill as passed were to become law, "Citizens will not have a mechanism to force our government to release this data if police claim it is part of an ongoing investigation. Furthermore, a civil action will have to have already been filed against the government for a citizen to have access to the data that could make or break their case."
So, where's the transparency the criminal justice system so desperately needs today?
We have long supported the "thin blue line" that protects the public, and we will continue to do so. And we certainly understand the rights of privacy that come into play with police cameras. But for their own good, and certainly for the good of American society, the police need to be more transparent. Consistent public access to recorded data is the best way to do that.