A new state law that went into effect on Dec. 1 has made it more difficult to view police body-worn camera footage in instances of death or serious bodily injury. Prior to the law’s passage, which took place in September, families of victims of police violence and those caught on footage could appeal directly to the law enforcement agency that had been involved. However, the signing of SB 300, otherwise known as the “Criminal Justice Reform Bill,” has made it so that families must now petition the courts to be able to view the footage. The law also only applies to the worst types of recordings involving those “related to death or serious bodily injury.”

According to the law, those wishing to view body-worn camera footage must fill out a notarized form provided by the law enforcement agency and then turn that form into the agency, at which point agency officials will file a petition in Superior Court. The court has seven days to review the recordings and make a decision on whether or not to release the footage to the petitioner.

“This is unnecessarily restrictive and it creates an additional hurdle that impedes the spirit of transparency that these body-worn camera laws were enacted to address,” said Kami Chavis, a law professor and director of the criminal justice program at Wake Forest University.

The change to the body-worn camera footage disclosure is embedded within the omnibus law which includes items such as a database for decertified law enforcement officers and limits to local laws that criminalize poverty.

Joe Lopez, whose son Joseph Thomas Lee Lopez was shot and killed by a Greensboro police officer on Nov. 19, said he didn’t know about the law change until recently. After a Greensboro officer called to tell him his son had been killed on Nov. 20, he reached out to a State Bureau of Investigation officer to ask to see the body-worn camera footage but said he never heard back.

“I made a request to the detective of the SBI, and he told me he was going to look into that,” Lopez said. “And the other detective of the Greensboro Police Department never gave me a chance.”

Joe Lopez kneels next to his son Joseph Lopez’s grave on Dec. 6. Lopez was shot and killed by a Greensboro police officer on Nov. 19 after more than 20 officers responded to a 911 call where Lopez was allegedly living. Three weeks later, his father says he needs to know why his son was killed. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

According to Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan, Lopez did not make a direct request to the Greensboro Police Department prior to the new law taking effect.

“I believe he called the SBI, and they referred him to Greensboro, but we do not have a request on file at all,” Vaughan said in an interview on Friday.

Vaughan noted that because Lopez’s death occurred on Nov. 19, his father would have been able to view the footage if he had made a request prior to Dec. 1 when the new law took effect. Now, Lopez will have to go through a judge. The issue with this, Chavis said, is that it puts an extra burden on victims and their families.

“I see no reason why a family member who is alleging that their family member was shot or killed or seriously injured by police should have to go through an additional hurdle of going through a court,” Chavis said. “This, to me, seems so unnecessary and absurd.”

And even if families petition a judge, they could decline their request to see the footage.

Lopez, who said he will continue to fight for justice for his son’s case, said he doesn’t know why a judge would do that.

“I don’t see why he would do that,” Lopez said. “I just want to know what happened to my son.”

To read our previous reporting on the Joseph Lopez case, go here.

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