Richland County ponders "unfunded mandate" of body cameras

Richland County ponders "unfunded mandate" of body cameras

RICHLAND COUNTY, SC (WIS) - As Kevin Gray prepares to open a new barbeque restaurant in Columbia, he's been thinking about the social and political unrest in Charlotte after a police shooting there last week.

"Think about Charlotte. We ride around Columbia, and they have billboards: 'Charlotte's Got A Lot.' Charlotte is the Queen City. People leave Columbia to go to Charlotte on the weekend," he said. "I didn't go to the football game this weekend, because I didn't want to go up and get in the middle of all that."

It's the reason the civil rights activist is hoping unrest won't come to Columbia when officers here continue to build good relationships with the community by investing in technology like body cams.

"I'm in favor of them," Gray said. "You know, the cameras make the citizen act different. It makes the officer act different."

That was the discussion across the street from Gray at a Richland County committee meeting Tuesday night. Sheriff Leon Lott wants county council to buy 350 cameras, but he says he'll need $712,000 in county funds to buy them.

"They're expensive because the technology is necessary and because the technology is important and because there's a lot of technology that goes along with it. It's not just the piece of equipment that you're purchasing. You're purchasing the clips that hold the body camera onto the uniform, you're purchasing the activation of the camera, and, more importantly, you're purchasing the storage," explained Richland County Deputy Chief Chris Cowan.

The sheriff's department is happy with the plan it brought to council. Cowan said they're state of the art cameras that will function well with existing technology at RCSD and the solicitor's office. In fact, he told council there really isn't another option that'll satisfy the transparency citizens demand.

Lawmakers mandated that departments across the state use the cameras, but at Tuesday night's meeting, there was some frustration that the State is only giving Richland County about $132,000 to pay for them.

"This is another unfunded state mandate," said Cowan.

Ultimately, after questions about the big cost, council members took no action in the meeting, but they're hoping to figure out a solution soon.

"I didn't hear anything tonight that would indicate that council is not going to support body cameras," said Councilman Greg Pearce. "There's a discrepancy with the numbers."

Meanwhile, back across the street, Gray hopes the cameras will be here before it's too late.

"Things are always good until they go bad. The county ought to remember that," he said.

The county says if the state doesn't provide more money, it might have to use an emergency procedure to raise taxes to pay for the cameras. Or, it might have to use rainy day funds to pay for them. Both are options the county council will likely have to revisit during its next meeting.

Meanwhile, Sheriff Lott told WIS that the $712,000 won't even buy cameras for all the deputies he'd like to equip, including school resource officers. He said if state lawmakers were serious about body cams, they would have funded them properly.

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