Tuesday, June 18

Concealed Transparency | How NC Body Camera Law Hurts Public Trust

Close-up of police body camera (Adobe Stock)

ASHEBORO N.C. — As an increasing number of police departments get body cameras, footage from incidents both heartwarming and infuriating has made its way into the public consciousness. It’s common to see body camera footage of officers committing incredible acts of bravery and compassion as well as gross infringements of people’s rights and violent unjustified uses of force on the nightly news. If you pay attention to the clips that make the news and appear in tv shows and on the internet, you’ll notice a trend, very, very few of them are from N.C.

When a police officer shot and killed 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant on April 20th, 2021, in Columbus, Ohio, police body-worn camera footage was released within just a few hours. That footage showed Bryant brandishing a knife and charging two women leading up to the moment Officer Reardon fired four shots; It also clearly showed the knife, and officers performing CPR on Bryant. Mayor Ginther said that “based on this footage, the officer took action to protect another young girl in our community”, calling the shooting a tragic day.

Use of force experts, elected officials, and political commentators on both sides of the aisle agreed that after seeing the body camera footage that had the officer not responded in the way and as quick as he did that Bryant may have fatally assaulted the two girls.

Now contrast that incident the very next day when Sheriff’s Deputies shot and killed 42-year-old Andrew Brown Jr. in Elizabeth City North Carolina, Despite multiple officers wearing body cameras and approximately 2 hours of footage being recorded, on April 28th, 2021, 7 days after the shooting, a Judge issued an order to block the public release of body camera footage rejecting requests by news outlets and the Pasquotank County Sheriff to release the footage.

A lawyer for the Brown family was allowed to watch just 20 seconds of body camera footage, a second lawyer was later allowed to watch around 18 minutes of footage, that lawyer later said that the videos did not show Brown initiating contact between his car and the deputies, a crucial moment in the incident.

The judge would later issue an order that Brown’s family be allowed to watch redacted versions of five body camera videos and one dashboard video. Ten days later, on May 18th, 2021, about one minute of the bodycam video footage was released by District Attorney Andrew Womble.

Under a law passed in 2016 by the N.C. General Assembly, body camera footage is not considered public record and police and sheriff’s departments do not have the ability to release footage on their own. Instead, family members or the public must hire a lawyer to petition the court for a judge to sign an order to release the footage.

The process often takes days or weeks and while police departments can have a city or county attorney make a petition to the court on their behalf, members of the public are not so lucky and often need to hire a lawyer to make the request, or find a way to make the petition at their own expense.

North Carolina’s laws regarding police body camera footage have been in place for years now, and while the law has recently changed to allow family members to petition the court on behalf of someone who is unable to, little has changed.

This law has fundamentally shifted how body cameras are viewed by citizens of our state. A recent survey by Acme News found that less than half of people (40%) agreed with the statement “Body cameras promote transparency and accountability”. While 68% of people said they feel safer when an officer has a body camera, the same number also said they see body cameras as a tool for police to gather evidence and not for accountability. Slightly more than half of respondents (55%) said that body camera footage should be public record.

Last Monday we sent these results by email to Senator David W. Craven, Jr, Representative Allen McNeill, Representative Pat B. Hurley, and Representative John Faircloth, who was one of the co-sponsors of the original bill in 2016. We followed up on all those emails Friday afternoon. None of our emails were returned.

There are two options to solve the current pediment of body camera footage in NC. Civilian Review Boards and placing body camera footage into the public record. Both options have their own flaws.

First, and the most obvious is simply placing body camera footage into public record. Besides the fact that this option has little support in the legislator, it also has other flaws. For one it puts the burden on police departments to redact footage that does not fall under public records. The insides of people’s homes, drivers’ licenses, computer screens, faces of victims and children, etc. all need to be blurred.

There is also a debate on what should and shouldn’t be redacted. This could easily be fixed by allowing a larger state agency like DPS to handle requests and redact footage when necessary.

The second option is something known as Civilian Review Boards. These are independent boards composed of civilians from the local community the police department serves that independently review complaints against officers and have access to body camera footage. In the end these boards issue their own ruling. The National Conference of State Legislatures says that since George Floyd’s death in May of 2020, at least twenty-four states and the D.C. have passed laws to expand law enforcement oversight. Today there are an estimated 200+ review boards. However, a 2018 Department of Justice (DOJ) report suggests that there is little in the way of empirical evidence for the effectiveness of oversight boards.

A third option proposed by a legal expert Acme News spoke to was for body camera footage to automatically be made public within 3 days of being recorded. This would give time for a police department, district attorney, or lawyer to petition the court to block the release if they feel that releasing the footage could comprise an ongoing investigation.

When body camera footage is concealed from the public it degrades the fragile trust that police departments need. Citizens begin to see body cameras not as a tool for transparency and accountability, but as a device used to gather evidence to be used against them. Police departments often conduct their own internal investigation or are investigated by District Attorneys that Police Departments must maintain a working relationship with. The findings of these investigations often must be taken at the word of whomever conducted the investigation.

Police body camera footage provides an objective witness and lends credibility to the outcome of any investigation. Without changes to the way the law works in North Carolina this unbiased witness is prevented from showing the public what happened. In the end the real damage of concealing transparency is corrosion of the public trust while also giving a license to bad apple police officers to violate people’s rights.