Triad leaders continue debate over North Carolina’s body camera video laws

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GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) — The deputy-involved shooting death of Andrew Brown Jr. in Elizabeth City threw North Carolina into the national spotlight. With questions as to what exactly transpired leading up to the shots being fired, many have called for the release of the body-worn cameras the deputies were equipped with. In turn, much of the focus then shifted to a bill which was signed into law in 2016; House Bill 972.

The bill, which was introduced into the general assembly in 2015, is “an act to provide that recordings made by law enforcement agencies are not public records.” In other words, for body-worn or dash camera videos to be released to the public, a judge must issue a court order.

A judge’s recent decision not to release the footage from the Elizabeth City incident has further fueled calls for that law to be changed.

“We were the first department on the east coast to be fully implemented with these body-worn cameras back in 2013 I believe,” says Cody St. Pierre, a corporal with the Greensboro Police Department and the president of the Greensboro Police Officers Association.

At the end of April, St. Pierre penned a letter to Gov. Roy Cooper to advocate for the “timely, complete and unedited release” of body camera footage.

“I began working on attempting to get some changes to our laws here in North Carolina to more reflect other states,” St. Pierre says.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 23 states and the District of Columbia have legislated how body-worn camera data is addressed under open record laws.

St. Pierre says, for the sake of transparency, the decision to release such videos shouldn’t be in the hands of people outside of the communities in which the videos are being recorded. Instead, he thinks that responsibility should fall on the shoulders of law enforcement agency leaders.

“We’re saying this guy is the most qualified to lead the police department,” St. Pierre says, of Greensboro Police Chief Brian James. “We should put decisions like this in his hands in my opinion.”

St. Pierre adds he’s supported by the large majority of the association’s members.

“We don’t want rioting in Greensboro when we can prevent it,” St. Pierre says. “We want the public to trust us, we want them to know we’re doing the right thing.”

St. Pierre also argues that the cameras capture everything the officers do, not just when something negative occurs.

“It’s my due process and I’m telling you I want you to see the video,” he says. “We stand by the work we do.”

Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill argues against changing the law, using a different definition of due process for justification.

“Every person investigated for a crime, whether you’re a civilian or a police officer, you deserve that right to a fair trial,” O’Neill says.

O’Neill agrees with St. Pierre’s argument that the cameras capture much more than violent incidents but says much of the other parts of an officer’s day can be used for investigations of other sorts.

“Those individuals that are being investigated for crimes, nobody’s interested in seeing those videos,” O’Neill says. “They only want to see those videos when law enforcement’s involved in a shooting, or a physical takedown.”

He adds that the videos should only be released after the case has been heard and the person has had the opportunity to defend him or herself in court.

“There has to be an ability for a judge to say, ‘well, regardless of what this person’s profession is, they are still entitled that same right to a fair trial that everybody else involved with the criminal justice system is,’” O’Neill says.

In response to a FOX8 inquiry, Representative Allen McNeill – who was a primary sponsor of H.B. 972 – said, “In my opinion the law has worked just as it was intended to. All the calls to change the law show a very basic misunderstanding of the law or in many cases a purposeful misrepresentation of the law. Body camera footage is evidence and is protected just as crime scene photos, fingerprints, and other evidence of a crime.”

McNeill is a former member of the Randolph County Sheriff’s Office.

“District Attorneys who must prosecute crimes, and Judges who must adjudicate the crimes are and should be in control of any evidence of a crime. Therefore, the decision to release body camera footage is rightly a matter for the courts. It is not a matter for politics, politicians, or mob mentality. I also want to point out that disclosure to certain persons, usually family members or representatives of the family, is allowed under the law and requires no court order,” he said.

There are currently two bills – with the same language – in the state legislature which would change the state’s body camera laws. Senate Bill 510, which was introduced on April 6, 2021, and House Bill 698, which was introduced on April 28, 2021, both read, “A bill to be entitled an act to require the release of body-worn and dashboard camera recordings upon request after forty-eight hours have passed from the time of the recording.”

Representative Amos Quick III, representing Guilford County in the state’s 58th district, is a primary sponsor of H.B. 698, as is Representative Ashton Wheeler Clemmons, of District 57.

The bills have been referred to the Committee on Rules, Calendar and Operations of the House and the Committee on Rules and Ohenneperations of the Senate.

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