Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Governor Pat McCrory says he supports increased transparency for police, but clearly not through access to police-cam footage.
Can a state achieve more police accountability by giving the public less access to police field procedures? On Monday, Governor Pat McCrory signed into law the bill passed by North Carolina’s general assembly late last month that makes police camera footage off limits to the public. North Carolina is now officially a case study for this seemingly backward approach to police transparency.
Now, citizens who’ve been recorded via police-worn body cameras or police dashboard cameras can only view the recording at the discretion of a police chief or sheriff. If those law-enforcement officials decide not to let a person see the recording, that person will now need a court order to view it. In general, police-cam footage will not be a matter of public record—nor will it become part of a police officer’s personnel file.
Protecting those who protect us while promoting uniformity, clarity & transparency. Read abt legislation signed 2day https://t.co/ZnwUwJcVaF— Pat McCrory (@PatMcCroryNC) July 11, 2016
“Body cameras should be a tool to make law enforcement more transparent and accountable to the communities they serve, but this shameful law will make it nearly impossible to achieve those goals,” said Susanna Birdsong, Policy Counsel for the ACLU of North Carolina, in a press statement.
But McCrory said at the law’s signing that shielding police-cam footage from the public actually bolsters transparency: “[The law] seeks to gain public trust while respecting the rights of public safety officers,” reads a statement from McCrory’s office. The new law also establishes a “Blue Alert,” which acts as an “AMBER alert” for cops, alerting the public about suspects who’ve harmed or killed police officers.
McCrory signed the law as the nation reels from a number of high-profile tragedies involving African Americans shot and killed by police officers in Louisiana and Minnesota. But the new North Carolina law feels more like a response to last Thursday’s ambush attacks in Dallas that led to the deaths of five police officers and the injury of many others.
In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the police officers involved in killing Alton Sterling were both wearing body cameras, and had a camera in the dashboard of their car. However, the body cams were dislodged from the police officers as they wrestled with Sterling, and it remains unclear if footage from the dash-cam is usable.
Civilian cellphone footage and live-streaming social media helped expose what happened in the shooting deaths of Sterling and Philando Castile, and also in the Dallas ambush. But so far, increased camera surveillance has only seemed to bring added protections for police regarding the release of some footage—as in the case of this new North Carolina law.
The City of Chicago recently released hundreds of audio and video files of police involved in violent actions on citizens. This was done after a court ordered the city to release video of Chicago police officer Jason van Dyke shooting the African-American teen Laquan McDonald. The city kept police-camera footage of that killing from the public for more than a year. McCrory referenced this as he signed the North Carolina law on Monday, saying, “We’ve learned in Chicago that if you hold a piece of film for a long period of time, you completely lose the trust of individuals.”
And yet, McCrory has now sent North Carolina in the exact opposite direction of Chicago’s moves toward reform. This, along with the Baton Rouge police-cam malfunction, is not likely to inspire much confidence among people who are already cynical about the efficacy of police cams. As Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza told Jelani Cobb in The New Yorker:
Being able to watch the execution of a black person doesn’t further any kind of consequences for the murderer. In all of the cases of police violence in the last three years, 0.01 per cent of those officers have been convicted, so body cameras are not the solution. I think as we saw in Baton Rouge, there were body-camera mandates for those officers. Supposedly those cameras fell off during the struggle that didn’t happen, and of course the dash cam wasn’t working, so, again, it’s an interesting idea in the direction of transparency, but in its implementation, it’s deeply, deeply flawed.
Police cams helped bring federal criminal charges against a Las Vegas police officer in January, but it remains to be seen if the footage will actually bring a conviction in that case. There’s no justice here if these cameras are only helping to protect the police from public accountability instead of helping the police better protect the public.