The standard objection, a familiar talking point recited so often it’s become a cliché, goes something like this: “Releasing the video may harm an ongoing investigation.”
Those magic words can stop transparency dead in its tracks, but the claim is seldom challenged. Police and prosecutors never explain precisely how placing body camera footage in the public’s hands would prevent detectives from determining why an officer used deadly force.
Vague predictions of unspecified doom are difficult to disprove, but the claim collapses in the reverse scenario. We can’t find a single example of a police shooting captured on bystanders’ cellphone cameras where authorities were hamstrung.
If the public seeing a deadly police encounter on video could really undermine criminal probes and internal affairs investigations, wouldn’t that have happened at least once by now?
With no evidence to support the premise, conjecture that transparency and due process are at cross purposes simply rings hollow.
After a Superior Court judge in Pasquotank County denied a petition to release footage from sheriff deputies’ fatal April 21 shooting of Andrew Brown Jr., legislators sprung into action to fix North Carolina’s backward body camera law. State Rep. Amos Quick III, D-Guilford, introduced House Bill 698 to authorize disclosure of police video upon request 48 hours after it’s recorded.
Reps. Linda Cooper-Suggs, D-Wilson, and James Gailliard, D-Nash, signed on as cosponsors. Sen. Ben Clark, D-Hoke, introduced an identical version of the legislation as Senate Bill 510.
In 2016, the General Assembly voted to make body camera and dashboard camera video exempt from the N.C. Public Records Act. Only a person whose image or voice is on the recording has a right to review the footage.
In order to obtain a copy of the video, citizens and journalists must file a petition in Superior Court, and a judge has to sign off on the release.
As we’ve said in this space before, that’s the opposite of how it ought to work. Recordings should be presumed public, and if police have a legitimate reason to withhold a specific video, they can go to court to have it sealed.
Body camera use mushroomed when the U.S. Department of Justice offered grants to purchase and implement the technology following Michael Brown’s August 2014 shooting death in Ferguson, Missouri. Then-President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder hailed the cameras as a police accountability tool that would restore public trust in law enforcement. Making the video a state secret frustrates that goal.
Despite the national backlash that’s followed high-profile police shootings of unarmed African American men, most law enforcement officers are courteous, fair and professional in the exercise of their duties. The public deserves to see that side of the story, too.
Making body camera footage public would most often paint police in a positive light. And on the rare but concerning occasions when officers’ use of force is unjustified, police departments can send a powerful message by exposing that conduct and dealing with it in the light of day instead of sweeping it under the rug.
Open government is a nonpartisan issue, and politicians’ support is often frustratingly fickle. While Democrats are leading the charge to restore public access to body camera videos and have yet to garner Republican allies, GOP state legislators led by Sen. Norman Sanderson, R-Pamlico, are backing the Government Transparency Act of 2021 to open more public-sector personnel records to public inspection.
Left-leaning groups including the North Carolina Justice Center, North Carolina Association of Educators and Teamsters Local 391 oppose the open records bill, Senate Bill 355. Conservative voices have been skeptical of body camera disclosure. Placing first principles ahead of politics would ensure both reforms’ passage with bipartisan support.
No one wants to interfere with thorough investigations into police shootings. If there’s ever an instance where releasing video would actually harm a case, authorities should be able to obtain a court order that delays disclosure, which HB 698 would allow.
There’s no proof that such a set of circumstances has ever arisen in North Carolina. Perhaps there’s a first time for everything, but that clearly should be considered the exception rather than the rule.