NC bill would shield police body-camera video from public disclosure

Posted June 7, 2016 6:04 p.m. EDT
Updated June 7, 2016 6:05 p.m. EDT

— A bill that would prevent video from police body cameras and dashboard cameras from disclosure under state public records laws cleared a House committee Wednesday and could be on the House floor by next week.

House Bill 972 also would apply to police surveillance video but not to videotaped interrogations.

Sponsor Rep. John Faircloth, R-Guilford, said the measure strikes a balance between police accountability and the rights of private citizens, noting that cameras see what officers see, including people in their homes at some of their most difficult moments, such as a domestic violence incident.

"There are private things that could be very embarrassing to people, could be hurtful to people, and that doesn't need to be public," said Faircloth, a former police chief.

Under the bill, anyone captured in police video or audio could request to see it but would not be allowed to have a copy. No copies of police video could be released to the public unless ordered by a judge.

Jonathan Jones, director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition and a communications professor at Elon University, called the proposal a secrecy bill.

"This bill provides that the only right a citizen has to get access to that video is by filing a lawsuit, and that's prohibitively expensive," Jones said. "We know from the public records law, which also has a similar provision, that citizens are unable to file those lawsuits."

Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Haywood, said making body camera and dashboard camera video more readily available to the public would increase the transparency of police operations.

"These records are videos of a public servant doing his public duty," Queen said. "It seems to me like the record is a public record."

Faircloth said his bill would increase transparency, noting that body camera video is currently treated as a personnel record by police departments statewide, which makes it nearly impossible for any member of the public to see it.

While many law enforcement agencies now embrace the use of body cameras, he said, "they also want to maintain their ability to do their criminal justice work and to control the environment to the point that we don't go too far."