Just before the jury began deliberations in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer found guilty of murder in the death of George Floyd, a member of the prosecutorial team told jurors to trust what they viewed.
“Believe your eyes,” prosecutor Steve Schleicher said. “What you saw, you saw.”
Evidence presented during the weeks-long trial included chilling footage of the moments leading up to Floyd’s death — bystander video and also recordings from the responding police officers’ own body-worn cameras.
Floyd, 46, died May 25 after a police officer knelt on his neck for nine minutes. His death sparked protests throughout the United, including dozens throughout South Carolina and in its Upstate.
Will the jurors finding Chauvin guilty of murder and manslaughter and video being a key part of the evidence have any ripple effect in how law enforcement handles body camera footage in South Carolina — more than 1,000 miles from Minneapolis?
Right now in South Carolina, some law enforcement agencies still don’t have enough body cameras for all their officers who interact with the public. Additionally, footage from officers’ body cameras is largely protected from public view. Will the Chauvin verdict lead to change?
“I hope so,” said Bakari Sellers, an attorney and former state representative. “Body cameras aren’t just for defendants. They are also to keep cops safe. At the end of the day, it’s not just about body cameras. But it is about accountability and body cameras are a first step toward accountability.”
In the Upstate, Sellers represents a teenage girl from Greer who was shot by Anderson County Sheriff’s Office deputies after they were involved in a chase with a man who was driving the car in which she was a passenger.
After the man fatally shot himself in the darkness Aug. 11, deputies believed they were being fired upon and fired their weapons, Sheriff Chad McBride has said. The teen was struck by deputy gunfire and was injured.
That case is the subject of civil litigation, and Sellers has pushed for the agency to release body camera footage.
Police shooting of Walter Scott led to body camera reform in South Carolina
The death of Walter Scott in North Charleston in 2015 led to the call to require body cameras in South Carolina.
Scott, a Black man who was unarmed, was shot in the back by the white officer while running away from a traffic stop. The North Charleston Police Department did not have body cameras at the time. A bystander’s video showed officer Michael Slager lied about the circumstances of the shooting that killed Scott.
In a powerful speech state Sen. Clementa Pinckney made shortly before he was killed by a self-professed white supremacist in the Charleston church massacre, Pinckney, who was also a reverend, spoke about Scott’s death urged legislators to take action on body camera requirements.
Pinckney spoke about Thomas the Apostle from the Bible, who doubted Jesus’ resurrection until he saw Jesus’ crucifixion wounds. Pinckney compared Thomas’ doubts to the doubts people had about what happened to Scott.
“When we were able to see the video and see the gunshots … we said ‘I believe.'” Pinckney said. “We have a great opportunity to allow sunshine in this process.”
State law passed in 2015 stipulated that officers working with the public must use body cameras but it didn’t provide money for the cameras or the systems needed to maintain the footage. Paying for the cameras and the footage storage can be financially strapping, particularly for small departments.
Additionally, body camera footage is exempt from public disclosure through the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Even when officers are equipped and cameras are used properly, there’s no guarantee the public will see the footage.
Under the law, some people do have the right to see the footage, including a criminal defendant or an attorney litigating a relevant case. Law enforcement agencies also have the right to release footage at their discretion, but how — or if — they do varies widely.
When the U.S. Department of Justice began advising police agencies on implementing body cameras in 2014, the federal agency communicated about openness and transparency.
“A police department that deploys body-worn cameras is making a statement that it believes the actions of its officers are a matter of public record,” a 2014 report from the Department of Justice states. “By facing the challenges and expense of purchasing and implementing a body-worn camera system, developing policies, and training its officers in how to use the cameras, a department creates a reasonable expectation that members of the public and the news media will want to review the actions of officers.”
Still a ways to go; money needed for body cameras
Williamston Police Chief Tony Taylor, who is Black, said he believes South Carolina’s body camera rules are “direct and good legislation.”
He has 26 officers at the Williamston Police Department, including some who work part-time. He does not have enough body cameras for all of them. He thinks he is about six short.
“Our policy is that anytime you’re in an interaction with the public, you need to have that camera turned on,” he said. “Every officer who is working the street has a body camera on, and if they have a street shift, they check out a body camera to wear for it. We have nothing to hide.”
He acknowledged that South Carolina law allows law enforcement agencies to choose whether they release the footage.
“Any agency that is about being transparent, it’s not that you don’t want to release body camera footage, but you may have to redact,” he said. “And if a case is going to court, you have to think about: ‘Is what I’m putting out going to prejudice a jury?’ A decision not to release footage is not a decision to conceal, but a decision to protect parties involved so no one is hurt before they have the chance to have their side heard at trial.”
Taylor said he wished there was enough money to pay for all the cameras he needs.
“The problem is, the state makes a mandate and then doesn’t put the money to go with it,” he said. “Even in a very small department, body cameras and all they require can easily cost $20,000 or more.”
South Carolina Circuit Court Judge Cordell Maddox, himself a former state legislator, said he believes there is coming in this state “a push aimed at more transparency and making body camera footage more available to the public.”
But he cautioned that body cameras won’t turn each legal proceeding into an open-and-shut case.
“Body cameras are great, but there is a limit to them,” Maddox said Tuesday night. “They offer one perspective, but they are not all-seeing eyes. They are another piece of factual evidence that helps you get to the truth.”
Beyond video evidence, some key testimony in Chauvin’s trial in Minneapolis came from a South Carolina-based expert in police use of force.
Seth Stoughton, an ex-cop and professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, judged Chauvin’s actions against what a reasonable police officer in the same situation would have done, and repeatedly said that Chauvin did not do what was reasonable, according to The Associated Press.
“No reasonable officer would have believed that that was an appropriate, acceptable or reasonable use of force,” Stoughton testified of the way Floyd was held facedown with a knee across his neck for nine minutes.
U.S. Senator Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican, released a statement Tuesday evening after Chauvin was found guilty, saying in part that “there is no question the jury reached the right verdict.”
“While this outcome should give us renewed confidence in the integrity of our justice system, we know there is more work to be done to ensure the bad apples do not define all officers — the vast majority of whom put on the uniform each day with integrity and servant hearts,” he said. “We must all come together to help repair the tenuous relationship between law enforcement and Black and minority Americans.”
Nikie Mayo is an investigative reporter for The Greenville News. Follow her on Twitter @NikieMayo and reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.