Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
A controversial bill on the matter has cleared the House and made its way through the Senate Wednesday.
This post has been updated to reflect the bill’s passage through the North Carolina state Senate.
Remember that bill that would restrict police body-camera footage from the the public, the one that North Carolina’s House judiciary committee passed earlier this month? Well, it has been approved by the full state House of Representatives and has passed through the state Senate as of Wednesday afternoon. It now heads back to the House for another vote on language added to the legislation. If that is approved, the bill will go to Governor Pat McCrory, who is expected to sign it into law.
The bill renders any footage captured by a police officer’s body camera or police dashboard camera closed from public view. This means that no one will have the right to view the footage—not even the people who are, themselves, captured on the video. If the bill becomes a law, the only way to view such footage will be to get a judge’s approval.
“They’re not striking the right balance if, in every instance, a person has to get a court order to see these videos,” says Susanna Birdsong, an attorney for the ACLU of North Carolina. “[State legislators supporting the bill] are making it seem like this is an easy process, but there are real financial and time barriers for people going to court to do that, so that won’t be an option for a lot of the very communities that police body cameras are supposed to benefit.”
In February, a Raleigh police officer shot and killed 24-year-old Akiel Denkins after chasing him over a warrant for a drug violation. There’s a dispute over whether Denkins tried to attack police before he was killed—police cam footage could’ve been helpful in sorting that out. Either way, the officer will not be charged. The editorial board of Raleigh’s News & Observer called that ruling fair, but acknowledged that the issue is still unsettled:
But a finding of no criminal wrongdoing by the officer does not resolve all questions raised by the encounter. There are still questions about the priorities and style of policing in Raleigh’s low-income and mostly black communities. And while Raleigh Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown is African-American, her department’s officers do not reflect the diversity of the city they serve.
...[P]olice and city leaders should examine how the incident came about and escalated into a fatal encounter. Denkins was wanted for failing to appear on a drug charge. Was there a better way to bring him in than to have a lone officer chasing him through backyards until they struggled at a fence?
Given the current cultural climate, where 84 percent of African Americans feel that they are not treated fairly by police, making police-video footage more available to the public is a necessary move to restore—or, really, establish— faith in law enforcement.
Chicago has taken this step toward more police transparency—which was badly needed in light of how the city went out of its way to cover up video of the police shooting of Laquan McDonald for more than a year. The withholding of that footage only served to fuel rumors that the police were doctoring footage to protect Jason Van Dyke, the cop who killed McDonald. Van Dyke was ultimately charged with the murder only after a court ordered the video to be released to the public.
But North Carolina seems less concerned about African Americans’ low confidence in the police, and the events all over the country that have inspired it. (CityLab has reached out to the Southern States Police Benevolent Association for comment.)
“If we’re talking about using body cameras to inject more trust and transparency, then this isn’t really getting the job done,” says Birdsong. “People will believe that if you’re not going to show them something, well then you must have a reason for not showing it. And without more information, people could think a lot of things.”