North Carolina law blocks release of police recordings

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Body camera stock photo (NELSON KEPLEY/News & Record)

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Citing a desire to balance “public trust” with the rights and safety of law enforcement officers, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory signed legislation this week that blocks the release of law enforcement recordings from body cameras or dashboard cameras with limited exceptions.

But the state’s attorney general says the law goes too far.

Under House Bill 972, audio and video captured by police body cameras or dashboard cameras are not public records.

Surrounded by law enforcement officers from across the state, McCrory signed the bill Monday at a news conference in Raleigh. He said the new law will promote “uniformity, clarity and transparency” by establishing clear standards and procedures for releasing law enforcement recordings.

A person whose image or voice is captured in the recording may request its disclosure in writing from the law enforcement agency. If granted, only a look at the recording is possible; if someone wants to copy or record the footage, that person has to petition a judge for a court order for its release.

How did law come about?

Previously, North Carolina had no uniform state law regarding the release of body camera footage, leaving jurisdictions to make their own rules. Dashboard camera video was considered personal footage, allowing for its release under certain circumstances.

Now, both are off-limits to the public without a court order from a judge.

“Technology like dashboard cameras and body cameras can be very helpful, but when used by itself technology can also mislead and misinform, which causes other issues and problems within our community,” McCrory, a Republican, said Monday. “It’s better to have rules and guidelines with all this technology than no rules and guidelines whatsoever.”

Rep. Pat Hurley, who co-chairs the state House’s Appropriations, Justice and Safety Committee and one of the bill’s sponsors, told CNN via email that the conversation about the legislation began after she attended meetings of the Criminal Justice Information Network, which facilitates information sharing among law enforcement agencies.

She noticed several police departments implementing their body camera policies differently, so via an oversight committee, Reps. John Faircloth and Allen McNeill, both former police officers, were tapped to hold meetings with stakeholders and report back.

“It had nothing to do with the recent shootings,” she said. “We felt because of the cost of implementing the program as well as the cost of storing the tapes, that departments should have some guidance and the local departments should fund them, not the state.”

Part of needle exchange bill

Critics denounced the measure, saying it would reduce police accountability at a time of heightened public discourse on the topic after police-involved shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota and deadly sniper attacks on Dallas police.

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper told CNN affiliate WTVD-TV the law goes too far. Cooper, a Democrat, said recordings from body cameras and dashboard cameras should be treated as public record, with some exceptions for crime victims or investigations.

The measure has been in the works since April as part of a bill that included a needle exchange program.

McCrory said the recent shootings “shook the nation” and “law enforcement communities,” according to CNN affiliate WRAL-TV, but he did not explicitly state that they prompted him to sign the bill.

He did, however, refer to the police-involved shooting of Laquan McDonald in which the Chicago police fought efforts to release dash cam video.

“We’ve learned in Chicago if you hold a piece of film for a long piece of time you completely lose the trust of individuals,” he said. “We’ve learned if you immediately release a video sometimes it distorts the picture, which is extremely unfair to our law enforcement officers.

“In North Carolina, we’re going to walk that fine line and do the right thing, and that’s exactly what this legislation does.”

Diminished accountability?

The American Civil Liberties Union said the law, which takes effect in October, would sidestep police accountability.

“Body cameras should be a tool to make law enforcement more transparent and accountable to the communities they serve, but this shameful law will make it nearly impossible to achieve those goals,” Susanna Birdsong, policy counsel for the ACLU of North Carolina, said in a statement.

“People who are filmed by police body cameras should not have to spend time and money to go to court in order to see that footage. These barriers are significant and we expect them to drastically reduce any potential this technology had to make law enforcement more accountable to community members.”

The legislation gives police considerable latitude in considering whether to release the footage. Among the factors departments may consider:

• If the disclosure would reveal information regarding a person of a “highly sensitive personal nature”;

• If the disclosure “may harm the reputation or jeopardize the safety of a person”;

• If disclosure would create “a serious threat to the fair, impartial, and orderly administration of justice”; and

• If withholding release is necessary to protect an active or inactive investigation, criminal or internal.

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