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EDITORIAL

Our Opinion: Bring body camera videos into the sunlight

Posted on January 25, 2021

OpinionEditorials
Assistant Police Chief Michael Koster shows a first-generation body camera at the police department in Mitchell, S.D., on June 12, 2018.

Briana Sanchez | The Argus Leader via AP

Assistant Police Chief Michael Koster shows a first-generation body camera at the police department in Mitchell, S.D., on June 12, 2018.

Quote

Body cameras were supposed to increase trust in law enforcement by showing officers’ professionalism and courtesy, and they were intended to help communities hold cops accountable when the tale of the tape showed excessive force or abuses of power. Without meaningful public access, the technology is little more than an evidence-gathering tool for police and prosecutors."

Now shrouded behind a veil of secrecy, police body camera and dashboard camera recordings could become more accessible in North Carolina if lawmakers adopt a criminal justice reform panel’s recommendations. 

The Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice presented its final report to Gov. Roy Cooper on Dec. 14. While its support for decriminalizing marijuana grabbed headlines, the task force’s push to increase government transparency can’t be overlooked as the General Assembly returns to Raleigh for its 2021 long session on Wednesday. 

Under current state statutes, law enforcement agencies can’t release video footage without a court order, and people wishing to view or obtain copies of the recordings have to petition a Superior Court judge for access. 

A 2016 law made it easier to hide unflattering police interactions from the public and press. In the absence of statewide policy, the videos were subject to disclosure under the N.C. Public Records Act. Dashcam video was routinely released to media outlets and citizens, and agencies differed in their response to public records requests for bodycam footage.

As we’ve long said on this page, recordings of our public servants doing their jobs should be public property. Body cameras were supposed to increase trust in law enforcement by showing officers’ professionalism and courtesy, and they were intended to help communities hold cops accountable when the tale of the tape showed excessive force or abuses of power. Without meaningful public access, the technology is little more than an evidence-gathering tool for police and prosecutors. 

The task force co-chaired by N.C. Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls and Attorney General Josh Stein proposed meaningful changes that would strike a balance between authorities’ interest in preventing viral videos from derailing an investigation and the public’s interest in monitoring police performance. 

First, the panel seeks a law to require body cameras in use at every law enforcement agency in North Carolina within two years and require all patrol and field vehicles except undercover cars to be equipped with dashcams. 

Another reform would allow county commissioners, city council members and civilian oversight board members to review police video footage. These elected and appointed officials supervise law enforcement agencies but are often in the dark on how important police interactions transpired. 

Finally, the task force is recommending a law that would require agencies to publicly release law enforcement recordings of critical incidents — defined as “the discharge of an officer’s firearm in the performance of duty when interacting with the public or a use of force that results in death or serious injury” — within 45 days. 

Agencies could ask a court to delay the release further if making a video public would compromise an active investigation, and judges would apply the intermediate “clear and convincing” evidentiary standard, a higher burden of proof than mere “preponderance of the evidence,” to weigh those claims. 

Beginning with a presumption of public access and providing a mechanism to withhold video when investigators have legitimate reasons would better balance the competing interests at play than current state policy, which is hostile to notions of transparency and open government. 

“Within 45 days” provides too much discretion for our comfort. Legislators could instead require a video’s release whenever a case is cleared by arrest or otherwise classified as closed, with the 45-day threshold functioning as the final deadline. 

The task force suggests language that recordings “must be redacted to adequately protect victims and the privacy interests of non-involved individuals.” That reflects persistent misconceptions about publicity rights. There’s no reasonable expectation of privacy in public places, so this recommendation should be narrowed to allow redactions only when officers are in private homes or other places where the general public couldn’t readily observe them performing their duties. 

Overall, the recommendations aren’t perfect, but they would go a long way toward making law enforcement more transparent and accountable to the public it serves. 

We urge our state lawmakers in Wilson and Nash counties — Sens. Milton F. “Toby” Fitch Jr. and Lisa Barnes and Reps. Linda Cooper-Suggs, James Gailliard and Matthew Winslow — to sponsor and support legislation that will increase access to police video footage. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and the Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice says it’s in everyone’s interest to bring body camera recordings out of the shadows.

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