Fayetteville police chief backs public release of police video
Posted March 14, 2016
Updated March 15, 2016
Hickory, N.C. — Fayetteville Police Chief Harold Medlock told a gathering of reporters and open government advocates Monday that he supports the publication of all law enforcement video gathered from dashboard and body cameras.
The position puts the leader of the state's sixth largest police force somewhat at odds with many of his colleagues across the state and country, who are all grappling with policies to govern what video they should release as they continue to adopt the technology. Medlock spoke as part of a panel on police video at an event in Hickory to mark Sunshine Week, a celebration of open government and transparency.
"Personally and professionally, I think we need to put it all out there," Medlock said. "It starts to tell the story of police work."
Medlock, who as a deputy chief of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department helped expand the use of dash cams there, said the devices help improve the behavior of both officers and the public.
That view is backed by research that has shown the use of cameras reduces the number of complaints against law enforcement agencies that adopt them. But privacy advocates and government officials alike have expressed particular reservations about the public release of body camera video, which may capture footage from inside someone's home when officers respond to a call.
Medlock said he understands that concern, and has heard personally from people inside and outside the department who worry about revealing the identity of a rape victim or a witness to a murder. But he said adopting a stance that the video is public first can allow the state and the community to decide what standards they want their law enforcement agencies to adopt – and which footage goes too far.
"I'd rather have too much information than not enough," Medlock said, noting that picking and choosing which video gets released can create distrust.
Fellow panelist Mark Newbold, an attorney with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, said transparency isn't the only goal of body camera programs. Footage can help police supervisors ensure their officers are following agency policy. or it might be a crucial part of an investigation that should be protected until a public trial.
"Transparency is part of it, but it has to be balanced with other interests," Newbold said.
Releasing body camera footage also raises particular privacy implications, since officers use them to record interactions in more personal spaces than dashboard or other surveillance cameras allow.
Most private citizens, Newbold said, "wouldn't want your neighbor to be able to pull up that video for Friday night entertainment."
In April 2015, CMPD established a 13-page body-worn camera policy to govern its use of the devices. According to that policy, the department will release footage publicly with a court order. Aside from that, requestors can only view the video if it's unrelated to a criminal or personnel investigation, but can't make copies.
"If it's going to be more transparent, that's going to be a legislative fix," Newbold said.
It took almost two years and a public trial for the CMPD to release dashboard camera footage in the shooting of Jonathan Ferrell, an unarmed 24-year-old black man shot 10 times in September 2013 by Officer Randall Kerrick. Kerrick was charged with voluntary manslaughter a day later, based largely on video evidence reviewed by police leaders.
But panelist Michael Gordon, the Charlotte Observer reporter who covered Kerrick's resulting mistrial, said Monday the footage wasn't as clear as CMPD officials led the public to believe.
"Video only offers one dimension," Gordon said. "It's a very imperfect tool."
Because of that imperfection, he said he has concerns about trusting the fate of footage to a small number of senior leaders.
"There is a real risk in keeping control of video, because it is so imperfect, in a small group of hands," he said.
In his view, Medlock said the good about releasing video to the public outweighs the bad. Over the last several months, Fayetteville officers have responded to seven incidents where people have fired guns or pointed weapons at them without using deadly force. They've also stopped what they're doing to play football with kids on their beat.
Medlock said he wants to see that kind of video released too, so residents can get a more complete picture of how officers police the community.
That way, when officers do break the rules, the public has more context and a deeper trust that the department will hold its people accountable.
"These are human beings wearing these badges," Medlock said. "We make mistakes."