Greensboro seeks legal change on release of police footage

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by Eric Ginsburg

As demonstrators call for greater police accountability, Greensboro is quietly working on proposing revisions to a law limiting the public release of footage from officer-worn body cameras.

Hundreds of protesters, many of them students, coalesced around the megaphone, where participants were taking turns issuing fiery calls to action outside Greensboro’s Melvin Municipal Office Building downtown. Amid calls for sustained action, and a few well-received declarations of revolutionary intent, one of the clearest demands emanating from this demonstration last week after the grand jury decision in Ferguson, Mo. was for police-worn body cameras.

The thing is, Greensboro already has those. On every patrol cop in the city. And it was the first large police force in the country to fully outfit officers with the cameras, Mayor Nancy Vaughan said.

Some of the people present were aware of that — state Rep. Marcus Brandon called for statewide legislation to expand on Greensboro’s example — and a few people localized the call for accountability. What’s the point of putting cameras on cops, they asked, if the public never gets to see the footage?

When it was his turn on the megaphone, a man with a black bandana around his neck cut to the point: When will the city release footage of the officer-involved shooting death of Chieu-di Thi Vo, a Vietnamese woman who was shot and killed by Greensboro police officer TJ Bloch while wielding a knife in March?

It isn’t the first time residents have raised concerns about the fact that the city generally won’t release footage from the cameras.

The material is protected under state personnel law, the city claims, even though the impetus for the cameras was greater transparency and reduction of misbehavior on both sides of the badge. But as the calls were renewed last week as part of massive nationwide protests after the Ferguson decision, including numerous demonstrations in the Triad, Greensboro city staff quietly went to work on some policy changes.

Vaughan, who is spearheading the effort for greater transparency and who stopped by the Nov. 25 Ferguson protest in Greensboro, has been frustrated by the gaps in existing law that pertains to the cameras.

“At this point, technology has gotten ahead of the law,” she said, repeating a point she has made numerous times over the last six months. “We’re going to ask the legislature for help in deciding what is and what is not a public record. We’ve got this tug of war over personnel versus public records.”

At a city-organized summit to address the issue, experts parsed out the various privacy issues that the cameras raise, including the fact that footage could show inside of private residences, victims of domestic violence or juveniles. Existing law leaves many holes and question marks, Vaughan said, which is why she has pushed for a proposed legislative change for clarity.

Vaughan and City Attorney Tom Carruthers, who is orchestrating proposed changes in tandem with other city staff including the police department, both declined to talk specifics about what the changes would entail, agreeing that remained to be determined but adding that the city is actively working on it. Regardless of the specifics, the goal is to provide greater leeway as to when the city can release footage publicly when there is a controversial incident and public outcry, Vaughan said.

City staff is preparing suggested language for the amendments and will discuss the intent of the changes with the city council, Carruthers said. The goal is for the council to reach agreement on proposed changes as part of its legislative agenda before the General Assembly convenes in January, he said, allowing the Guilford County delegation to take up the issue in the state legislature.

Council will likely discuss the suggested language in early January, Carruthers said.

Information that is classified as personnel information, including the footage from body-worn cameras, can only currently be released under specific circumstances, and Vaughan said the law doesn’t make much sense. One glaring example, she said, is that the city can publicly release information if an employee has been disciplined but it cannot say if an employee received a commendation for a job well done. Other elements of the law, she said, are open to interpretation.

City council can currently vote to release information that is part of a personnel file, including but not limited to footage from the cameras, under two circumstances, Carruthers said. Those are if the employee consents to the release, or if there is personnel action such as a police officer being demoted or fired. Under either of those conditions, council could vote to release information for the purpose of maintaining public confidence.

Carruthers said he could recall two incidents in which council has done just that, including during the scandals under former police chief David Wray and more recently from a well-publicized set of complaints at the Sebastian Village housing complex near NC A&T University and Bennett College.

But if a police officer was involved in an incident, the department didn’t find any wrongdoing and the officer didn’t want the footage released — regardless of city council’s desires or public outcry — the video could not be made public.

In that regard, even Mayor Vaughan couldn’t review the footage of Vo’s shooting if she wanted to see it. In future cases where there is a level of public controversy, Vaughan is seeking limited reforms for the sake of transparency and trust. She said she wouldn’t want to publicly release footage from an officer-involved shooting death without consent from the victim’s family. And Vaughan said she would want to find a way to limit nuisance requests, from say a blogger who wanted to see a month of footage from a specific officer.

But in general, Vaughan wants to see those question marks in the law filled and a way to keep practically all footage from being buried in personnel files. The result may not be exactly what the hundreds of demonstrators cheered and called for last week, but Vaughan hopes it will be a step towards public trust.