Debate continues over NC law limiting access to police body cam footage

Posted July 12, 2016

— Attorney General Roy Cooper says a newly enacted law on police camera footage makes it too difficult for citizens to obtain recordings by law enforcement body cameras and dashboard cameras, while Gov. Pat McCrory insists it allows the public to obtain footage as needed.

The diverging opinions reflect the ongoing disagreement over the law that McCrory signed on Monday.

How footage recorded by police is handled is a particularly high-profile issue given recent incidents in which police officers have fatally shot black men initially detained for relatively minor infractions.

In North Carolina, police camera footage has been largely treated as a personnel record, making it virtually impossible to access by third parties. The new law does provide a path to access, but initially that would apply only to people who are captured in the video – and then only with agreement from the police chief or sheriff of the officer who recorded the footage. The citizen in question and his or her attorney or other representative could view it but could not copy or photograph it.

A District Court judge could allow other parties, such as news organizations or advocacy groups, to view the video if they present valid reasons why they should be allowed to see it, and if the judge finds the request does not violate seven conditions included in the law, from highly personal content to a potential risk to public safety.

Akiba Byrd, a member of the Raleigh Police Accountability Community Taskforce, said requiring people to go to court will discourage the release of many recordings.

"If a person has an interaction with a police officer and they want access to their footage and make it public after that, they should be able to do it," Byrd said.

Cooper agreed that the new law is too restrictive, leaning too much toward keeping footage secret.

"I would have preferred to have a presumption of public camera (footage), but having some exceptions where we know we need exceptions to protect witnesses, to protect an investigation," he said. "I think what we need to do is to revisit that issue in future legislative sessions. We need to see how this works first and how the courts are going to react to this, because it's important to have these cameras. But at the same time, we may need to provide some improvements to the legislation."

McCrory said Cooper never raised those objections as lawmakers debated the proposal last month.

"The bill is a common-sense approach and a balance between respecting the rights of our police officers while balancing the public's need to know," he said.

Cooper, a Democrat, is running against McCrory, a Republican, in this fall's gubernatorial campaign.

Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison said there are too many cases where making video public would invade people's privacy, such as a domestic violence situation or a case involving juveniles.

"It’s hard to come up with when you can, and we don’t. We try to look at it from both perspectives," Harrison said. "We want to be out front. Let people know what we do. We don’t want to hide anything."

Byrd said keeping footage out of the public view leads to that impression, however.

"I think what the governor is doing is potentially giving the police stations the opportunity to criminalize and over-police its citizens without any accountability and transparency, and that’s not going to do anything to develop relationships or instill trust between the two," he said.

He urged people to use their own phones to record interactions with law enforcement and share it publicly, calling it "the people's body cam."


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  • Jason Herzog Jul 14, 2016
    user avatar

    ALL footage should NOT be open to the public.

    Reason #1 Police gets called to a residence regarding domestic violence. Cop enters home and spouse laying naked in hallway floor murdered. Is it fair to the family for EVERYONE to have access to this footage?

    Scene#2 Police called to residence for security alarm going off. They enter home and homeowners have a large collection of guns, jewelry, or whatever. Now the public knows what the home owners have in the home. Does that increase the risk of future burglaries?

    The list goes on and on. Law enforcement, judges, jurors, lawyers and a few other select individuals should only have access.

  • Joseph Wilkins Jul 13, 2016
    user avatar

    View quoted thread

    There is nothing to hide. Just like any other evidence, there is a process to review it. If you really want to "get a better understanding of the situations and challenges police have" as you stated, go down to your local police department and request to do a ride along. I am sure they will be happy to assist you. Some departments even require that you wear a bullet proof vest to reduce the chances of you getting hurt. A video only captures a small square box worth of flat, two dimensional information. Go experience it in its entirety.

  • Matt Nickeson Jul 13, 2016
    user avatar

    I find it funny that people are screaming mad over this law when, in reality, it is vastly more open than what was in place before. Even Cooper can only attack it as needing "some modifications". What is ridiculous is the people saying this should be publicly available. That is an incredibly naive and simplistic idea that takes no account of the general public's right to privacy or real issues concerning police operations. The IRS uses taxpayer $ to examine your tax returns and pursue remedy for violations. Should we be able to access online every person's tax return to help examine if the IRS is malfeascent in their duties?

  • Arron Lee Jul 13, 2016
    user avatar

    Why does everyone think they are entitled to have access to every piece of information these days? The information obtained through a body cam should be accessible to the police, person being recorded, and the court system. We also have way too much access to military and national security data. Information in the wrong hands could be catastrophic.

  • William James Jul 13, 2016
    user avatar

    If dash and body camera video is not open to third parties it implies there is or will be something to hide! No one really cares about seeing DUI or domestic arrest footage, they can watch COPS to see that, everyone simply wants to see the unedited footage of the questionable traffic stops, arrests, shootings, or the like! If citizens can see the video we can at least get a better understanding of the situations and challenges police have in the field, by hiding or limiting the material you are totally leaving it up to readers imaginations.

  • Clarence Drumgoole Jul 12, 2016
    user avatar

    Who asked for the body cams and who paying for them? Stupid "LAW"!