Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
While some U.S. cities move toward releasing police footage for accountability and transparency, North Carolina heads in the opposite direction.
In another *controversial move, North Carolina is now advancing legislation that would prohibit the public from viewing footage captured by police body cameras. The state legislature’s House judiciary committee voted on June 7 to approve a bill that would make police camera footage public only at a police department’s discretion. A person recorded on a police body camera or police dashboard camera would need a court order to get a copy of the footage.
“There would be no mechanism for law enforcement to release videos of public interest to the general public other than through a court order,” wrote the ACLU of North Carolina in a statement.
This moves North Carolina in the opposite direction of cities like New York City and New Orleans, the latter of which is loosening its rules around how and when the public can access police camera footage. This was a necessary step after a string of attempts by the New Orleans Police Department to withhold video of police-involved shootings and killings of unarmed suspects. This eventually blew up in the department’s face.
Chicago’s police department learned this the hard way, too, after its unsuccessful attempt at cloaking video footage of a cop shooting the unarmed, African-American teenager Laquan McDonald dead. Thanks to relentless advocacy around police transparency, the city has now released years of video and audio footage of police involved in acts of violence against citizens. Under a new policy, Chicago police must now produce video of police-involved shootings within 60 days. Officers must appeal to a judge if they want to prevent the release of such footage.
In North Carolina, however, it would be the people subjected to police harassment and violence who would have to appeal to a judge to get the visual evidence if this bill becomes law. In essence, HB 972 seems to mostly serve and protect police from public accountability.
“If HB 972 becomes law, public trust in law enforcement across North Carolina will suffer, and the millions of dollars being spent to equip officers with body cameras could be squandered with little or no benefit to the public,” said Susanna Birdsong, policy counsel for the ACLU of North Carolina in a press statement. “Many people simply cannot afford to bring a claim in court in order to obtain body camera footage.”
Elon University law professor Michael Rich, whose research focuses on police investigation methods, wrote in a May 2 op-ed for the Gaston-Gazette that one of the biggest dangers of the bill is that it designates police body-cam footage as a non-public record.
“This makes no sense,” wrote Rich. “Under existing law, public records include all ‘photographs’ and ‘films’ made ‘in connection with the transaction of public business by any agency of North Carolina government.’ Body-worn camera and dashboard camera footage clearly fit this definition, and the bill provides no reason for treating this footage different than all other public records.”
Watch this newscast from Raleigh-Durham station WRAL to hear the House panel debate the bill before taking a vote on it:
*NOTE: This post has been updated to more accurately cast this move as “controversial” rather than “conservative.”