by Eric Ginsburg
After public outcry, the city of Greensboro hosted a panel of lawyers on Tuesday to discuss issues of transparency and privacy as they relate to police officer-worn cameras.
When the city of Greensboro moved quickly to support body cameras for police officers, it appears nobody paused long enough to seriously consider what would happen to the footage. Now with cameras attached to all patrol officers and the public clamoring for recordings of several recent incidents, the city has found itself in what appears to be a tricky matrix of laws governing the dissemination of such footage.
At a forum Tuesday convened by the city to address issues growing from the use of the body-worn cameras, a panel of lawyers addressed the competing interests involved and purposes of the cameras, attempting to parse out what should be done.
After the Officer TJ Bloch shot and killed Chieu-di Thi Vo, the Greensboro Police Department has maintained that the recordings are protected under personnel law and cannot be publicly released. Under pressure from the News & Record editorial board, Triad City Beat and other members of the community, the city organized the panel to further explore the issue.
Though not directly addressing Greensboro, civil rights lawyer Scott Greenwood and North Carolina ACLU lawyer Chris Brook cautioned against departments that provide blanket denials of information requests by citing personnel laws that could, as Greenwood said, “swallow everything that happens in the field.”
Retired public interest lawyer Lewis Pitts, who lives in Greensboro, made the most impassioned case for transparency with the video collected, to the delight of many audience members who repeatedly applauded his remarks.
“Who is ultimately the supervisor for public employees?” Pitts asked, adding that refusals to release footage “is about concealing and hiding the wrongdoing of public employees from the public.”
Pitts, who has made similar arguments at city council meetings in the past, tied the issue to larger concerns about government surveillance and a lack of police accountability. He urged people to “cut through the ruse and charade about legitimate exceptions” to public records laws that are often cited regardless of whether it was appropriate.
Outside the meeting, a couple of demonstrators connected to the Stop Mass Incarceration Network held banners about police brutality and handed out fliers criticizing the lack of transparency in city business.
“[The camera’s] use has nothing to do with ‘accountability and transparency’ as some have hoped,” the flier reads, decrying the department’s “selective use” of footage and refusal to release it. In a few local incidents, law enforcement has refused to release footage of alleged police misconduct to complainants, it claims.
Though newly appointed City Attorney Tom Carruthers moderated the discussion, there was no direct response from, or even participation by, the city to explain the specifics of how and why it has interpreted existing laws. Instead, much of the discussion focused on pertinent state laws and general issues to consider, though Pitts did raise a number of specific local incidents.
The panel, made up of six lawyers, mostly agreed that the cameras raise complex issues, particularly because footage is recorded inside private homes and could involve victims, children or witnesses as well as potential defendants.
“This is an exceptionally complicated issue,” Brook said, adding that there are “multiple equities at stake.” Brook and other panelists who erred on the side of transparency still warned that a general release of footage could prevent people, such as victims of domestic violence, from calling police for fear of the recording being released.
Greenwood, who has consulted with police departments across the country and is a member of the ACLU’s national board, argued that people shouldn’t be able to see video taken inside someone’s home just because police had a reason to be inside. If the media and the public don’t have a right to follow an officer somewhere, their right to the footage shouldn’t extend to those situations either, he said.
He also applauded Greensboro for pursuing the cameras before many other departments in the country.
“This city took bold step at being at forefront with adopting cameras for all the right reasons,” he said, adding that now it was crucial to find a way to be transparent to make good on the public trust component of why the city pursued the cameras.
Greensboro criminal-defense attorney Jan Pritchett said he isn’t concerned about whether the public can watch the footage but whether someone who was recorded — be they a defendant in a criminal trial related to the recordings or someone with a complaint about police conduct captured by the cameras — had access to the recording. He added that he can see no reason why if someone felt wronged by the police they couldn’t obtain a copy of the video from the incident that would be more of an unimpeachable record.
Greenwood suggested that it might be ideal to release footage to anyone shown in the recordings. He added that maybe they should only be released more broadly if the person shown agreed to the release. The panel did not discuss specifics, including what should happen if the primary person in the video, such as Chieu-di Thi Vo, is no longer living.
Panelists raised other issues that would complicate attempts to alter existing laws in the name of transparency. They ranged from situations in which cameras should likely be deactivated, such as a strip search, to potentially blurring the faces of confidential informants.
The panel also talked about whether local governments such as the city of Greensboro even have the authority to release footage under state law. Brook said there would probably need to be changes to state personnel laws to allow cities such as Greensboro to be more transparent and forthcoming.
“We should not use that as a pass to not think ahead about what we should be doing on a county and municipal level to [be transparent],” he said.
Almost every Greensboro City Council member attended the meeting and some had already expressed concerns about the lack of transparency of the footage. As panelists universally applauded the city for hosting the event and seriously considering the concerns raised, it remained unclear what next steps the city will take.