by Eric Ginsburg
Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan and Councilman Justin Outling receive pushback on a policy for police body-camera footage from residents arguing the proposal is regressive.
When the Greensboro City Council and Greensboro Police Foundation sold the public on the idea of body-worn cameras for police officers, they promoted it as a win-win; an unbiased record of interactions between police and the public would help alleviate baseless claims of officer misconduct and allow for greater transparency when an officer actually mistreated someone.
But as council and the department moved forward with the plan a few years ago, making Greensboro police one of the first departments to fully launch body-worn cameras, a fundamental aspect of the plan was amiss.
Mayor Nancy Vaughan and others on council and city staff have said they didn’t realize that state law wouldn’t allow the release of the footage as a public record, which many residents say is a fundamental part of the equation if there is to be any police accountability.
Council called together a panel of legal experts in September 2014 to explore when the footage could or should be released, followed by a failed attempt to convince the state legislature to take up the matter and clarify the law to allow for greater transparency.
Now, thanks to a proposal by Vaughan and new Councilman Justin Outling, the dormant topic is being revisited. Citing personnel and criminal records laws, which City Attorney Tom Carruthers argues would block almost all public-records requests to view footage, Vaughan and Outling’s plan seeks a path for greater release to certain parties under very specific circumstances.
But residents who spoke on the item at last week’s city council meeting and at the council’s public-safety committee meeting Monday lambasted the plan as undermining the original purpose of the cameras and falling dramatically short of transparency.
“This discussion now is the best example I’ve ever seen of the betrayal of trust,” the Rev. Nelson Johnson said during the Monday meeting. Johnson, who serves as executive director of the Beloved Community Center and has been a leader in the local fight for police accountability, said council’s conversation of the matter had become highly technical and legalistic to the point that the public couldn’t follow along.
“This is not about legal nuances,” he said. “It’s about destroyed lives.”
Several other residents spoke in opposition to the Vaughan/Outling plan on Monday and last week; not a single resident spoke in support of it at either meeting.
Speaking at the Monday committee meeting, League of Women Voters chapter co-president Anna Fesmire urged the council to “stay at the drawing board and continue to work on this to make it reflect the kind of access to information that we need in order to have confidence in our government.”
“I think there’s a great deal at stake here, so I’d say keep at it until you can get it right,” she said, adding that the Vaughan/Outling plan doesn’t provide any transparency.
The plan, dated March 3, provides very limited permitted disclosure of footage. Under the proposal, only people filmed by the cameras would have the right to review — but not receive a copy of — the tape, and only when the police department doesn’t believe the release “would undermine a defendant’s right to receive a fair trial or that an ongoing or future criminal investigation would be undermined by the release.”
Any time a civilian dies as a result of police use of force, the State Bureau of Investigation looks into the incident, meaning that the officer potentially becomes a criminal defendant.
Criminal defendants in Guilford County already have the right to view footage showing them, Carruthers has repeatedly stated to council.
The plan also allows the council to release the footage as a public record “including but not limited to persons recorded” if council finds “that the release of the footage is essential to maintain public confidence.”
State law already allows information that is deemed “personnel information” to be released with the individual officer’s consent, by court order and by city council with agreement of the city manager “when an officer has been disciplined and it is necessary to maintain public confidence,” according to a police department presentation at last week’s council meeting. Carruthers and the department currently argue that the footage is classified as personnel record, a contention that residents including former lawyer Lewis Pitts refute and argue is an attempt to shroud public records in secrecy.
Carruthers offered a revised policy at the public-safety committee meeting on Monday that is more detailed and that he said considered some of the concerns residents raised last week. One line adds the possibility of approved footage being posted on the website, but Carruthers’ modifications don’t substantially alter who could view body-worn camera footage or the circumstances of the release. A couple residents on Monday thanked him for his efforts, but no members of the public spoke in support of his iteration, either.
Members of council’s public-safety committee — Councilwoman Marikay Abuzuaiter, Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson and Councilmen Mike Barber and Tony Wilkins — appeared receptive to public feedback.
But Outling, who is not on the committee but who came to the meeting, defended his proposal vigorously from the dais, at times visibly aggravating Abuzuaiter, the committee chair, who repeatedly asked council members to hold comments to the end of the public-comment period. Much of the tension arose between the councilman and Pitts, who put forward a less restrictive proposal supported by residents at the meetings, including retired Guilford College professor Barton Parks and blogger Roch Smith.
Opponents of the Vaughan/Outling plan pleaded with council members on Monday to delay a vote on the plan, arguing that more time is needed for vetting and public input. A vote is currently scheduled for the May 3 council meeting, but Abuzuaiter and Johnson expressed agreement that council should hold off. Outling appeared to disagree, asking city staff to poll the full council and see if there’s broader support for moving forward as scheduled or holding off.
Regardless of what that poll finds, the opinion of Greensboro residents — at least those willing and able to speak publicly on it — lines up squarely with the other local League of Women Voters chapter co-president Janice Siebert when she said Monday that the government must protect the public’s “right to know,” and that as long as the city refuses to release body-worn camera footage, people will believe the police department and city officials have something to hide.