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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.
The architect of the current law, Rep. John Faircloth of Guilford County, has heard his share of complaints, 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 Winston-Salem 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. 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 necessary.
We applauded the introduction of police body cameras to Winston-Salem. We thought they would help build trust and openness by providing an objective record that protects the rights of officers and the public. And they have, to a large degree, when the public has been able to gain access to that footage.
When that access has been delayed, questions, allegations and mistrust have festered.
“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 recently. “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 makes the law marginally better, but it’s nowhere near the law we need.