New NC body camera law will mean court order required for police video release

Posted September 22, 2016

— When Gov. Pat McCrory appeared on CNN Wednesday night, he was pressed by host Don Lemon about North Carolina's new body camera law, which will soon require a court order to release footage from police recordings.

"Why not release it to the public, though?" Lemon asked asked McCrory about the pending law.

"Don, I've got to respect the constitutional rights of our police officers and also the investigation," McCrory replied.

Lemon pressed back, "What about the constitutional rights of the citizens, though?"

McCrory said the law would help certain citizens.

"In fact, some citizens in videos we might need to protect in videos," McCrory said, "because a lot of times we have innocent people that might be in a video. We have videos that might be in domestic violence disputes and so forth. Listen, Don, I've got to get back to work. I've got a lot of work to do."

The exchange was one of several media reports focused on House Bill 972, which passed this summer. The bill doesn't go into effect until Oct. 1, but it has been cited by local police as one reason to withhold footage Charlotte police recorded during the Tuesday shooting of 43-year-old Keith Lamont Scott.

Critics say that the Scott shooting illustrates the need to release police video and why the new law is too restrictive.

"This is just precisely the kind of situation I was afraid would occur," said Jonathan Jones, director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition and an early critic of the pending law.

Jones pointed out that two different narratives of the shooting have emerged: Police say Scott had a gun, but family members have denied that.

Charlotte's police chief said Thursday that footage recorded by his officers' equipment doesn't definitively show whether Scott had a gun, but he has still not moved to release the video. If he waits until Oct. 1, it's likely that the city would need to obtain a court order to release the video under the new law.

Meanwhile, Tulsa, Okla., police have released video of another recent shooting of an unarmed black man, a move observers credit with helping to calm community reaction to that incident.

"This situation in Charlotte highlights the importance of law enforcement being transparent with these videos and the importance of of the public having ready access," Jones said.

While it may not answer every question, he said, "it sure would help the public have a better understanding."

Signed in July

The new body camera law passed 88-20 in the state House, and 48-2 in the state Senate. In the Senate, only Sen. Chad Barefoot, R-Wake, and Sen. Jeff Jacson, D-Mecklenburg, voted against.

McCrory, a Republican, signed North Carolina's body camera bill in July, saying it strikes the "necessary balance" between a public's right to know and protecting law enforcement officers. His administration, including Secretary of Public Safety Frank Perry, continue to defend the law from criticism.

"Uniformity, clarity, transparency and quickness – those are the four things this law provides," Perry insisted this summer.

Among the critics this summer was Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat running against McCrory in this fall's gubernatorial campaign, who said the law makes it too hard for the public to obtain footage.

"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," Cooper said in July.

Open government advocates said the law defeats the idea of police wearing body cameras in the first place.

"Body cameras should be a tool to make law enforcement more transparent and accountable to the communities they serve," Susanna Birdsong, policy counsel for the ACLU of North Carolina, said in a statement this summer. "But this shameful law will make it nearly impossible to achieve those goals."

Current law varies

While it's more restrictive than many would like, the new law provides a path to seek release of police video that hasn't existed before.

Current policies on body cameras vary across the state. Many departments treat such recordings as {{a href="external_link-16038030"}}personnel records, which puts them beyond the reach of the state's public records law. By and large, release of videos remains at the discretion of local sheriffs and police chiefs.

That's the state of the law in Charlotte right now.

Lawmakers began working on the new law more than a year ago, as both police recordings became more common and a number of high-profile police shootings of unarmed black men dominated the news.

Authors of the new law said it would provide a process for seeking the release of video while still protecting the privacy of police and civilians.

"There are private things that could be very embarrassing to people, could be hurtful to people, and that doesn't need to be public," Rep. John Faircloth, R-Guilford, a former police chief, said during a June committee hearing.

Access limited

Under Faircloth's legislation, police recordings are not public records.

People who are depicted in police camera footage and their "personal representatives" may request permission from a police agency to view the video.

The law enforcement agency may grant access, but it can refuse on a number of grounds, including that the video contains information of a sensitive nature or could put someone's life at risk. A person who is denied disclosure can appeal to court.

Even if that person is allowed to view the tape, the law enforcement agency may not release a copy of the video short of a court order.

In addition to those involved in a particular incident, members of the public, such as reporters, can also go to court to seek a copy of the video. The way the law is written, even if a police agency wants to release the footage, it would likely have to go to court as well.

In order to release a copy of the video, the court must consider eight factors, including whether its release will advance a compelling public interest, if it contains sensitive material and whether release would harm the reputation or jeopardize the safety of an individual.

The court also may place conditions on the release of the video, including that it may not be shared with others.

If police officials in Charlotte don't release the video of the Scott shooting before Oct. 1, it may end up subject to the provisions of the new law. However, that's unclear because the measure does not speak to whether it applies only to new recordings or all videos held by police.

"Given the silence in the statute, my viewpoint is that it probably would apply," Jones said. "But I don't know what a court would say."


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  • Clarence Drumgoole Sep 24, 2016
    user avatar

    Oct. 1 use your cell phone cam.

  • Benjamin Kite Sep 23, 2016
    user avatar

    We trust the CIA when they keep secrets, because the safety of a CIA agent in the field is at stake, and the ability to hold an agent's killer iresponsible is in question. But when did the NC legislature prove beyond a reasonable doubt that bodycam videos put LEOs in clear and present danger? NC politicians believe that OBSTRUCTING THE TRUTH keeps LEOs safer than SHARING THE TRUTH. In November, it is our resposnibility to show them how much we disagree.

  • William James Sep 23, 2016
    user avatar

    Another contradiction in Common Sense, the entire country is demanding transparency, yet NC passes a law to totally forbid it! What was the point in even paying the millions for body cameras if citizens can't even see it? If the officers are in fact doing their job in a professional and prudent manner the video would only confirm this, but denying access screams dishonesty or cover up. Example, if body cam video was available for this last shooting it would have immediately confirmed or disconfirmed the officers report, and totally avoided the protests and national out rage if the officer was in the right. Not to mention this makes NC look backwards again!

  • Byrd Ferguson Sep 22, 2016
    user avatar

    Thanks for the censorship, WRAL. I guess you don't want to hear comments about the Charlotte shooting since the shooting was of a black person by a black officer.