Editorial: Outcry over Charlotte police shooting shows NC's police body cam law needs revision

Posted September 28, 2016 6:00 a.m. EDT
Updated September 28, 2016 6:56 a.m. EDT

A CBC Editorial: Wednesday, Sept. 28. 2016; Editorial# 8060
The following is the opinion of Capitol Broadcasting Company

Like too many of the laws recently passed by the General Assembly, the legislation restricting disclosure of video and audio recordings from police body-worn and dashboard-mounted cameras was done in haste. In just two days, amid the confusion and mayhem of the session’s end, the Senate got the bill from the House, passed it and it moved on to Gov. Pat McCrory.

We know first-hand, particularly following the turmoil that’s engulfed Charlotte, the importance timely release of these videos can have in providing information to the public. Even when not conclusive, being open and sharing information people can see can help assure citizens authorities are acting in the public interest.

Videos collected via body cams and dashboard cams can be critical law enforcement tools, helping solve crimes and bringing perpetrators to justice. They can help reinforce critical evidence. Further, they can show police acted properly so those who are guilty don’t avoid conviction on technicalities.

But now, days before House Bill 972, “Law Enforcement Recordings/No Public Record”becomes effective, significant weaknesses and concerns are all too obvious in this bill passed in a rush.

First, and foremost, the new law says the police videos are NOT public records. Unlike nearly all other information collected by government officials at taxpayer expense that is considered a public record, these recordings are not. So, instead of government officials having to prove why the information should NOT be available, it is taxpayers who must prove, in court, the public has a right to the video.

At a signing ceremony photo-op, McCrory said the new law would “gain the public trust by promoting uniformity, clarity and transparency.” The law does achieve two of the governor’s criteria. Providing uniformity and clarity in how such recordings are handled across the state removes guess work and confusion among the state’s various local and regional public safety agencies.

However, the law utterly fails in its most crucial aspect -- transparency.

When the public is denied access to information, there is no transparency, there is no way for taxpayers to independently determine if a version of events described by the accused, witnesses, or law enforcement, is accurate.

A news release from the N.C. Republican Party says one of the virtues of the law is that it will take “decision-making authority out of the hands of politicians” and leave it to “an independent judge to make decisions regarding the release.” This is quite an assertion coming from the same folks who, in other matters recently, have bitterly complained about decisions by what they termed politically motivated judges.

The state GOP also said the law allows anyone to petition “free of charge” for release of the videos; the reality is that any such effort will require those seeking release to hire a lawyer for representation, since the law enforcement agency will surely have taxpayer-funded legal representation in the courtroom.

The General Assembly should, as soon as possible, revise the law and make sure the recordings are public records with appropriate provisions for citizens to easily gain access to the recordings.

Assuring the public has access to information about the conduct of law enforcement in their community rarely conflicts with the conduct of investigations. But hiding that information can easily damage the hard-earned confidence law enforcement agency seek to develop in their communities.

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