Our Opinion: Legislators play hide and seek with body cam footage

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Call it the body camera bait and switch.

North Carolina lawmakers touted the rollout of body-worn video cameras as a tool to ensure police are accountable to the public. But if a bill working its way through the state House is signed into law, residents will be hard-pressed to get their hands on the footage.

The Judiciary II committee on Wednesday signed off on House Bill 972, a measure to exclude body camera and dashboard camera videos from disclosure under the N.C. Public Records Act. Rep. John Faircloth, D-Guilford, said he filed the bill to balance competing interests of confidentiality and transparency. If this is what passes for balance, an epidemic of vertigo has struck the General Assembly.

HB 972 allows police to release videos only to a person who is the subject of a recording, the parents of a child whose image or voice is on the tape, the family of a deceased person who was recorded or a personal representative of an adult appearing on the footage who either gives consent to the release or who is incapacitated and unable to do so.

Law enforcement agencies, however, can refuse to provide the recordings if they find that one of six factors are met. The excuses include a finding that “disclosure may harm the reputation or jeopardize the safety of a person.”

Let’s examine the first clause. If an officer crosses the line in his or her dealings with a member of the public and uses abusive language or excessive force, police commanders could bury the video because it would “harm the reputation” of the officer.

We thought body cameras were supposed to facilitate trust and confidence in law enforcement through accountability. Letting cops circle the wagons and hide the evidence when one of their own falls short does the opposite — it inspires suspicion and erodes trust.

People recorded by the police and their families would, at least in theory, have an easier time obtaining the video than the general public and members of the media. For people who aren’t a party to the case, videos could only be released by order of a superior court judge.

Faircloth’s bill flips fairness on its ear. Police videos should be presumed public, and if there’s a legitimate reason to delay their release, officers should have to go before a judge to have the records sealed.

Some North Carolina law enforcement agencies have applied for and received federal grants to purchase body-worn cameras under a U.S. Department of Justice initiative. Established in September 2015, the program’s stated purpose was to ensure transparency in the wake of police shootings of unarmed suspects.

“This vital pilot program is designed to assist local jurisdictions that are interested in exploring and expanding the use of body-worn cameras in order to enhance transparency, accountability and credibility,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a statement then.

Keeping the footage under lock and key does nothing to hold police accountable and make them transparent. If the bill passes, perhaps the state should refund those grant dollars.

Despite the national backlash that’s followed the high-profile shootings of unarmed African-American men, we believe these instances are the exception rather than the rule. Most law enforcement officers are courteous, fair and professional in the exercise of their duties. The public deserves to see that side of the story.

Making body camera footage public record would paint most police officers in a positive light rather than a negative one. And on the occasions when officers’ use of force is excessive or unjustified, police departments can send a powerful message by exposing that conduct and dealing with it in the light of day instead of sweeping it under the rug.

We call on our legislative delegation to vote against HB 972, which serves neither the public nor the legitimate interests of law enforcement.