COLUMBIA, S.C. — Video from brand-new body cameras made it much easier to clear three officers who fired 23 shots and killed a man who fired a shot at them during a scuffle, a South Carolina prosecutor said.
“The video of unfolding events captured by the police cameras clearly show an uncooperative subject who had no concern for the safety of citizens,” Solicitor Chip Finney wrote in a letter in the State Law Enforcement Division’s investigate file of the shooting obtained by The Associated Press.
But because those cameras were so new, Finney almost didn’t get the footage.
It took less than a minute for Waltki Williams to dive out the window of his wrecked vehicle, run, get tackled, fire a shot and then be killed at a Sumter intersection in December. The officers closest to Williams each said things happened so fast, they forgot to click the button to begin recording until after Williams was on the ground with 19 gunshot wounds.
Body cameras have suddenly become a popular new technology in police departments after a series of high-profile police shootings, many with racial undertones. Williams was black. The officer who tackled him is white. Two of the three officers who fired are also white, and the other is Hispanic.
Some departments are also realizing that body camera footage can humanize officers by showing how they interact with people when not investigating crimes.
Officer Dustin Hilliard was still adjusting to his body camera before the call that ended in Williams’ death. He said he realized he hadn’t turned it on until right after he fired his gun. Experts said that is not unusual with police officers given a new task to perform in situations where years of training take over.
“The camera is new to my daily routine only having the camera a few weeks,” Hilliard wrote in a statement to investigators.
Like most body cameras, the ones bought by the Sumter Police Department are always recording. But to conserve storage space and sometimes battery life, only the last 30 seconds of footage is saved, without audio, until the camera is turned on, according to the state police report obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Seth Stoughton, a professor at the University of South Carolina and former police officer, said there are some 60 types of body cameras on the market these days and it is common for them to only store 30 to 90 seconds of footage before they are activated.
So there are a few brief glimpses of officer Jeffery Hansen wrestling on the ground with Williams. When viewed frame-by-frame, there are some blurry images of what Finney said was a gun, a muzzle flash and Williams’ lifeless body with his finger still on the trigger. But the definitive sound of a gunshot is not heard.
Sumter Police spokeswoman Tonyia McGirt would not comment on the department’s body camera policies and procedures because police are being sued by Williams’ family.
Policies on using the new technology differ across the U.S. At issue is not only when to turn them on, but their placement: One officer who fired shots at Williams wore a jacket that covered her body camera on the freezing cold night.
Officers also worry about the cameras recording casual conversations or other private moments, Stoughton said.
Some agencies are trying other techniques to avoid making officers push a button in a high-stress situation, like connecting the cameras to GPS so they turn on automatically when the officer arrives at a call or allowing dispatchers to remotely turn on body cameras when situations quickly escalate, Stoughton said.