Editorial: Police videos are always in the public interest

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The law’s intent is clear: “An act to provide that recordings made by law enforcement agencies are not public records….”

It’s nonsense, of course — just about every minute of taxpayer-supported police time should be public record, particularly when agents interact with the people who pay their salaries. But it is the law of the land in North Carolina… for now…. And so we deal with it.

But how we deal with it changes from place to place.

In Greensboro, the body-camera footage from the Jose Charles incident remains under wraps even though there is considerable disagreement about the the event captured in the video. The city council and the Greensboro Police Department’s internal investigation have both determined that the officer accused of assaulting Charles acted within the parameters of his job — and that Charles should be charged with assault on an officer. But the police community review board, comprised of citizens, disagreed with that finding. Three of them have resigned amid the controversy. Activists took over a council meeting just last week over the issue, driving the body back to its offices before eight people were arrested for civil disobedience nearby.

When the public deems it necessary to review a case, the body-camera footage should exonerate the cop every time.

Council and the GPD are going to extraordinary lengths to keep the public from seeing this interaction between the officer and the 15-year-old Charles, especially considering the unrest this secrecy is causing.

Conversely, the city of Winston-Salem recognized immediately the importance of releasing body-camera footage from a city motorcycle cop during a recent traffic stop. It’s not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison — cell-phone video from a citizen had already gone viral, and City Attorney Angela Carmon argued that the context the body-cam footage provided was necessary to fully understand the event. The video did indeed show that the cop had apparently acted properly.

That’s the way it should be: When the public deems it necessary to review a case, the body-camera footage should exonerate the cop every time. But here in the real world, we’d settle for 75 percent. Any less, and we should all be terrified.

Last year, before the state law went into effect, GPD and city council released two separate pieces of body-camera video to the public — one that seemed to show an officer had acted properly and another where an officer apparently had not. Both are still up for debate depending who you ask.

But as we’ve seen in Winston-Salem, the law is not intended to be shield against the eyes of the public. Greensboro would do well to remember that.