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.
Surrounded by uniformed officers from across the state, McCrory signed House Bill 972 on Monday in a news conference in Raleigh. The Republican governor said the new law will promote “uniformity, clarity and transparency” by establishing clear standards and procedures for releasing law enforcement recordings.
Critics, including the state’s attorney general, said it could have the opposite effect of minimizing police accountability.
“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 said.
Under HB 972, audio and video captured by police body cameras or dashboard cameras are not public records, meaning the general public has no right to see or obtain copies of them.
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. If the person is deceased, incapacitated or a minor, a relative or representative can make the request on their behalf.
The law makes North Carolina the latest state to regulate access to law enforcement recordings as departments grapple with the new technology.
“At minimum, people recorded on police body cameras should be able to view it and have a copy,” ACLU of North Carolina spokesman Mike Meno said. “This law prevents that by making people go to court to obtain it.”
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 personnel footage, allowing for its release under limited circumstances.
Now, both are off-limits to the public without a court order from a judge.
“It’s better to have rules and guidelines with all this technology than no rules and guidelines whatsoever.”
The measure has been in the works since April and public meetings began soon after, said Rep. Pat Hurley, who co-chairs the state House’s Appropriations, Justice and Safety Committee and one of the bill’s sponsors.
The conversation about the legislation began after Hurley attended meetings of the Criminal Justice Information Network, which facilitates information sharing among law enforcement agencies.
She learned that several police departments were implementing their body camera policies differently, prompting the formation of an oversight committee to explore the possibility of offering continuity for the departments.
“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.”
Reps. John Faircloth and Allen McNeill, both former police officers, were tapped to hold meetings with stakeholders and report back.
Before HB 972, most departments classified body camera footage as personnel records, making them “practically impossible” to be released without officers’ permission, McNeill said.
“There was no process for the disclosure or release of body camera footage,” he said. “HB 972 was the culmination of all those public meetings and input.”
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.
Other critics of the measure said 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.
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.”
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.
Meanwhile in Indiana…
Similar legislation took effect in Indiana on July 1, but only after undergoing revisions to alleviate concerns that it gave law enforcement too much authority to withhold footage.
HB 1019 opens viewing of law enforcement recordings to those depicted in a recording or the owner of property shown in a recording. It also requires police to let the public view or copy a video if it depicts evidence pertaining to allegations of excessive force or civil rights violations.
The original version of the bill would have required the public to petition a judge to explain the reason for wanting the video’s release. A new provision requires police departments that refuse to release footage to justify why the video should be kept private.
The changes did not allay everyone’s concerns. As a result of its passage at least two departments have suspended use of body cameras, citing the cost of storing digital footage for extended periods.
The new law requires local departments to store all footage for 190 days to give citizens enough time to appeal a decision to withhold footage.
One of the departments to stop using body cameras, the Clarksville Police Department, had previously stored footage for 30 days, according to the Indianapolis Star.
Clarksville Police Chief Mark Palmer told the newspaper that another problem with the law is it makes footage more accessible to the public.
“You are going to see a lot more of people’s private lives being publicly scrutinized because these videos are going to become more public,” he said. “It’s hard enough to get people to cooperate with the police when there is some form of privacy involved.”