JUSTICE

Another State Tries To Keep Police Body Camera Tapes Hidden

North Carolina decides police cameras aren't public records, making the accountability they're supposed to provide one-sided

JUSTICE
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Jul 13, 2016 at 4:54 PM ET

North Carolina just became the latest state to set limits on public access to police body and dashboard camera footage, putting basically all of the control of videos in the hands of the very authorities these cameras are supposed to keep transparent and accountable.

Gov. Pat McCrory, last seen in the national news signing a bill into law that restricted transgender people’s rights to use the bathroom, said the law would “walk that fine line” between releasing footage too soon and too late, according to ABC. The law (in full here) does prevent videos from being considered part of an officer’s personnel records—which could prevent them from being released at all—but it also says they are not considered public records. Someone who is in the recording (or is the representative of that person) may request to see the recording, but cannot keep or make a copy of it. And law enforcement may deny the request under several conditions, including “if disclosure would create a serious threat to the fair, impartial, and orderly administration of justice” and “if confidentiality is necessary to protect either an active or inactive internal or criminal investigation or potential internal or criminal investigation.”

People who want the footage to actually be released to them or the general public would have to obtain a court order, which would be subject to similar conditions and, as we saw in Chicago police shooting death of Laquan McDonald, can take months or years. Supporters of the law say it protects both law enforcement and private citizens recorded by their cameras.

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The law goes into effect in October, when it will join similar restrictive access laws in at least five other states. Minnesota, the state where Philando Castile was killed in a police shooting not caught on body cameras because that force didn’t have them, passed a law at the end of May that considered body camera footage to be public only if an officer discharged his weapon or otherwise caused “substantial bodily harm.”

These laws have been harshly criticized by groups such as the ACLU for essentially keeping police footage secret. While they allow police officers to use the footage to prove that complaints lodged against them by the public are without merit, the public has much harder time using (and even accessing) that footage to prove those complaints are valid. Even North Carolina’s Attorney General, Roy Cooper (who is running against McCrory in the state’s upcoming gubernatorial election), said the law was “too restrictive and goes too far in preventing access by the public.”

The laws are also another example of how police body cameras do not provide the accountability advocates hoped for, at a time when police interactions with the public have been harshly criticized and this footage could do the most good. A recent study showed that body cameras reduced police use of force incidents only when officers recorded every single interaction with the public—that is, if the officers didn’t have control over when to record and when not to. Both Baton Rouge officers involved in the death of Alton Sterling were wearing body cameras, but they conveniently fell off and didn’t record the incident. Dashcams may not be much better: In Chicago and Los Angeles, at least, police cars are often broken, with the microphones usually being affected.

More Police Body Cam Law Raises Privacy And Logistical Concerns

We’ve also seen examples of how body cameras can protect officers and civilians alike when the footage is released to the public: In Cincinnati, an officer’s camera footage did not back up his claim that he shot Sam DuBose in self-defense, and that officer is now awaiting trial on murder charges. In another case, also in Cincinnati, body camera footage showed that an officer’s shooting of an armed man was justified. Cameras cost a lot less time and money than trying to change the entire culture of policing, especially with the federal government giving out money to police departments to purchase them. But it’s looking like they are a lot less effective, too—especially when state laws render them useless.