Why North Carolina is exempting body cameras from public record

Gov. Pat McCrory signed the controversial law on Monday. The effort has been heavily opposed by civil liberties groups as having a chilling effect on transparency.

Jim Mone/AP/File
Sgt. Chris Wicklund of the Burnsville, Minn., Police Department wears a body camera beneath his microphone in November 2014. On Monday, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory signed a bill that says footage from the cameras is not part of the public record.

In North Carolina, recordings from police body and dashboard cameras won’t be considered public records under a controversial law signed Monday by Gov. Pat McCrory.

The law says the body and dash-cam recordings cannot be kept confidential in an officer’s personnel file, a practice that has kept some videos indefinitely under wraps, The Washington Post reports. But civil liberties groups and social justice activists argue the law also makes it very difficult to view the footage, even for people who are involved in an action caught on video.

The law’s passage comes amid a growing tide of protests sparked by bystander videos showing violent altercations between police officers and black suspects. With police videos of last week's shootings of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota and the attack by a black man that killed five officers in Dallas yet to be been released, the videos filmed by bystanders have played a key role in spurring public debate.

Governor McCrory, a Republican, referenced those deaths as he signed the bill Monday, the Raleigh News and Observer reports.

Surrounded by law enforcement officers from several departments on Monday, he said he believed the law would strike a balance between “ensuring transparency” and respecting the rights of officers.

“If you hold a piece of film for a long period of time, you completely lose the trust of individuals,” the governor said. On the other hand, “we’ve learned if you immediately release a video, sometimes it distorts the entire picture, which is extremely unfair to our law enforcement officials,” he said, according to the Associated Press.

But the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina called the new law “shameful” and argued it would make holding police accountable for their actions “nearly impossible.”

Under the new law, people who are recorded, or their representatives, can view footage if law enforcement agencies agree, The News and Observer reports. But a law enforcement agency can deny a request to protect a person’s safety or reputation or if the recording is part of an active investigation.

If a request is denied, the requester can seek permission from a judge, who considers whether there is a “compelling public interest” in releasing it, the AP reports. Prosecutors would also get access and could determine whether an officer’s actions were legal.

A situation of this type unfolded with a dash-cam video showing an officer shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times in Chicago.

In that case, a judge ruled in November that repeated delays of a journalist’s public records request for the video would be warranted if the Chicago Police Department was conducting an internal investigation into the shooting, but not in the case of several outside investigations. He ordered the department to quickly release the video, and the officer, Jason Van Dyke, now faces first degree murder charges.

A petition calling on the governor to veto the bill attracted nearly 3,000 signatures, the AP reports, while the ACLU said the law could have a chilling effect on the accountability provided by body camera footage.

“People who are filmed by police body cameras should not have to spend time and money to go to court in order to see that footage. These barriers are significant and we expect them to drastically reduce any potential this technology had to make law enforcement more accountable to community members,” Susanna Birdsong, policy counsel for the ACLU of North Carolina said in a statement.

With the new law, North Carolina joins at least five other states that exempt body and dash cam recordings from public record requests, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Leaving the decision about whether to release the videos up to a single agency could also be problematic, some say.

“It comes down to a personal or moral level of whoever the police chief is,” Wanda Hunter of the Raleigh Police Accountability Community Task Force told the AP. “If it’s someone you constantly come head to head with, you can just hang it up there.”

While the governor said the law would “walk that fine line” between transparency and preserving officers’ privacy, journalists said they felt the law would soon be tested.

“We anticipate that at some point members of the press will take the new law out for a test drive to determine how well it’s going to work,” Mark Prak, a lawyer for the North Carolina Press Association, told the AP. “Lord knows the events of the past week made clear that in order for the public to understand what’s going on in the world, that kind of video can be really telling.”

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