Gov. Pat McCrory surprised exactly no one last week when he signed into law HB 972, a bill sponsored by Rep. John Faircloth (R-Guilford) establishing that footage from police body-worn and dashboard cameras is not a public record, while setting forth extremely limited circumstances for people who are recorded to review the footage.
The law leaves it up to the discretion of the head of the relevant law enforcement agency as to whether to disclose the footage, and then only to the person who was recorded, or their “personal representative.” If the person recorded is dead due to — just to throw out one hypothetical scenario — being killed by the police, then a parent, court-appointed guardian, spouse, adult child or attorney might be allowed to look at the footage.
To make the law even more restrictive, agencies may only make the footage available for viewing “at a time and location chosen by the custodial law enforcement agency,” but may not release the footage to the person recorded without a court order. If the agency chooses to not disclose the footage, the only available recourse is to file an appeal in superior court.
Again, there was zero chance that the governor would veto this onerous bill, but the insult and hypocrisy heaped on top of the deed has been breathtaking.
Flanked by law enforcement officers during the signing of HB 972 on July 11, McCrory created an Orwellian spectacle by uttering the word “transparency” twice in less than two minutes, along with the phrase “public trust,” while arguing the process would be “fair for everybody” and would protect the “rights” of law enforcement officers.
State law enforcement associations quickly praised the legislation, with the NC Troopers Association declaring that the law creates “improved transparency and trust” while the NC Police Benevolent Association lauded HB 972 for providing “transparency and accountability.”
The NC Sheriffs Association enthused in news release: “The new law also provides a simple procedure for viewing or obtaining a copy of a video in appropriate circumstances. If a difference of opinion exists about whether or not release of a particular video is appropriate, then the decision gets made by a ‘neutral and detached’ judicial official (i.e. judge) based on specific criteria clearly listed in the new law.”
The message to citizens: Not only are we shutting you out, but you should thank us for it. As for the sheriffs’ assurance that there’s a “simple procedure” to resolve a dispute over access, it’s frankly insulting to the many people who live paycheck to paycheck with little or no savings to suggest that they just hire a lawyer to sue the police if they don’t like the way they’re being treated.
Notably, the law includes no mechanism for the news media to access police video, and let’s be clear that this action by our state government is taking place in a national context when video recorded by citizens has revealed time after time that police in places like North Charleston, Cincinnati and Baton Rouge have wantonly and unnecessarily killed black men. There’s a reason that trust in the police continues to erode.
Not that anybody should be surprised at the state’s efforts to impede the news media. Officials from both major political parties have made their disdain for the profession abundantly clear. We get the message.
It must be said however that journalistic access is not about a self-interested pursuit in sensational scoops, commanding eyeballs and generating clicks. The ability of professional news organizations to review primary-source documents — such as video footage of critical incidents involving police and civilians — allows a baseline of shared facts incorporating the often-conflicting assertions of involved parties to emerge. Without that, it’s very difficult to have an honest dialogue about the function of government and performance of public servants. Those facts — if subjected to daylight — will often show that police officers are performing their duties honorably, but if journalists are prevented from unearthing the facts, it becomes difficult for the news media and the police to maintain public trust.
By shutting out the news media, along with clergy, activists and advocacy organizations, the state is also effectively isolating individuals who feel they have been mistreated by the police, ensuring that should they even be able to muster the resources to uphold their rights, they will be left in the position of making charges that cannot be corroborated by third parties and will easily be dismissed as unfounded.
Here’s a personal plea to Gov. McCrory, and to our state lawmakers, mayors, city council members and law enforcement officials: Please stop using the words “transparency,” “accountability” and “public trust” when discussing police dash and body cameras. If law enforcement agencies want this technology, then private police foundations should pay for it, as they did in Greensboro. Federal grants for a tool that does little more than create the illusion of accountability is the very definition of wasteful government spending.
This law is an affront to the principal of self-governance. It doesn’t do anything to maintain public trust. Far from it — our trust was lost the moment Gov. McCrory’s ink was put to the bill.