- Legislative panel looks at use of police body cameras
- Lawmakers debate who should decide when videos may be released
- Further discussion can be expected during Short Session
There’s one way to get at the truth when police and citizens clash, but will North Carolina be able to truly take advantage of the technology?
The only way to know what really happened at a controversial incident is to be present, and the only way to document that is to have body cameras on law enforcement personnel. North Carolina’s law enforcement agencies are beginning to implement body and dash cameras. This legislative session the legislators will introduce a crucial element: a bill that will determine if body camera video is a public record.
In North Carolina a public record is defined in General Statute 132-1(a):
“Public record” or “public records” shall mean all documents, papers, letters, maps, books, photographs, films, sound recordings, magnetic or other tapes, electronic data-processing records, artifacts, or other documentary material, regardless of physical form or characteristics, made or received pursuant to law or ordinance in connection with the transaction of public business by any agency of North Carolina government or its subdivisions.
The Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Justice and Public Safety on April 13 came up with a draft bill in which body camera video recordings would not be public record. One concern over the bill is over who should have the authority to deny requests for the videos.
The draft bill that states “(t)he head law enforcement officer of a custodial law enforcement agency shall determine whether … a copy of the recording should be disclosed.”
Questions were also raised by Sen. Gladys A. Robinson (D-Greensboro) about whether law enforcement officers should consult with other agencies about releasing videos.
Robinson presented an amendment that would have required the head of the law enforcement agencies, before releasing a video, to consult with a separate official or agency, such as the City Council, the city manager, county attorney, or district attorney. The amendment was rejected, 3-1. Voting against it were Rep. Michael Speciale, R-Craven, Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Moore, and Rep. John Faircloth, R-Guilford.
Despite the defeat, Robinson said, “We will see the amendment again.”
The three legislators who voted against the amendment said that it would take too much time and added that sheriffs are elected officials and as such are accountable to the voters.
Yet, though the public generally trusts law enforcement agencies and personnel, should they bear full responsibility for such decisions? Would review by an outside agency clog the system, or help ensure the process is fair and credible?
What do sheriffs think? I recently spoke with Nash County Sheriff Keith Stone to get his input on the body cameras and whether or not they should be public records.
Stone said he believes videos should be public records and as such they are property of the people. He believes that there are “sensitive matters” that at times should be kept private and confidential due to upcoming trials and personnel issues, but these matters should be worked with in collaboration with district attorneys.
So should the body camera video be public record? Wouldn’t you want to see the whole picture of what is happening in the headlines we are hearing about? If a public record includes “films…and other documentary material” shouldn’t the public have access? And if there is sensitive information, should an outside agency or official be consulted instead of leaving the decision without suitable checks and balances?