Raleigh, N.C. — North Carolina Secretary of Public Safety Frank Perry on Wednesday waded into the ongoing debate over a new state law that sets rules for viewing footage from police body cameras and dashboard cameras, saying it creates a consistent system for law enforcement agencies statewide.
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 a video – and then only with agreement from the local police chief or sheriff. The citizen in question and his or her attorney or other representative could view the footage 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 doesn't violate seven conditions included in the law, from highly personal content to a potential risk to public safety.
"Uniformity, clarity, transparency and quickness – those are the four things this law provides," Perry said.
The American Civil Liberties Union argues that video recorded by on-duty law enforcement officers should be public record and easy to access.
"It decreases transparency because it gives full discretion to the police department to decide even if the subjects of those recordings are going to be able to see it, and for anybody else, there has to be a court order," said Susanna Birdsong, policy counsel for the ACLU of North Carolina.
Birdsong said seeking a court order adds a burden of time and money that will discourage many people from even trying to obtain a police video.
"There are always costs associated with going to court, especially if you're someone who is not familiar with the process and you might need a lawyer to help wind your way through," she said.
Perry scoffed at that notion, noting that the process is free and that the law expedites the process by requiring a police chief or sheriff to decide within three days whether to allow a video to be seen and requiring judges to quickly rule on any requests to publicly release video.
"You have to wait months sometimes for us to respond pursuant to public records request – sometimes a matter of a year or two – and here, three days and everybody must comply with this," he said. "North Carolina has nothing to hide."