Let’s go to the tape ...
In an era in which live sporting events routinely are scrutinized to the inch and micro-millisecond using super-high-definition replays, we are not permitted the same access to footage that, unlike an NFL playoff game, might actually be a life-or-death proposition.
The fact is, North Carolina’s police video law tends to treat body-camera and dash-camera footage as if it were a state secret.
If the intent of the law was to utterly frustrate the people who pay the freight for it — i.e., local taxpayers — then mission accomplished. But if you had hoped that police video would help build trust and transparency and encourage better behavior by police and the public, well, you’re out of luck.
The legislation, championed by a former High Point police chief who now serves in the state House, treats police footage as a personnel record and requires a judge’s order for it to be made available to the public. Rep. John Faircloth, a Republican, has heard his share of complaints about the law, but has budged very little on it. Until recently.
Faircloth has filed a bill, with bipartisan support, that would loosen some of his original law’s restrictions. Specifically, the bill would allow a city council, board of county commissioners or police citizens review board to view the footage without first having to seek permission from a Superior Court judge.
But there is a catch. They would not be allowed to discuss what they see with the public. And they would have to sign a confidentiality agreement to that effect. Any violation of the agreement would be considered a Class I misdemeanor.
What then, would be the point, if, say, members of the Greensboro City Council could see footage but not publicly discuss it?
Well, at least it would inform the council’s knowledge and understanding of the incident. But if the council decided it wanted to make the footage public, it still would have to get a judge’s permission.
As we’ve said before, the law, as it stands, is fundamentally flawed and stifles the public’s right to know. The public pays the officers. It pays for the technology they use. So, officers’ interaction with the public ought to be a public record, period. Any fair and effective legislation regarding police footage should start with that premise, and then add valid exceptions, such as privacy protections.
When Greensboro became a pioneer in body-camera use, the technology was hailed as a breakthrough in building trust and openness — an objective record that protects the rights of officers and the public. It has not turned out that way — in part because people still can disagree on what the footage shows. But mostly because the footage is guarded so tightly by the law.
“The premise of body-camera footage is good,” Matt Stroud, author of a new book, “The Thin Blue Lie: The Failure of High-Tech Policing,” told NPR last week. “But the problem is when government officials and police push back against making the footage public — because that’s the whole reason (to have it).”
Faircloth’s tweak, whose co-sponsors include Democrats Pricey Harrison of Greensboro and Kelly Alexander Jr. of Charlotte, is a tiny concession to reasonableness.
It is marginally better than the law we have. But nowhere near the law we need.