Why North Carolina’s Police Camera Release Policy is… different

In most states, accessing body camera footage is as simple as a FOIA request.

But in NC, it’s much different.

This issue was again raised with the police involved shooting of Andrew Brown.

While I usually stay away from topics like this, when the town you are living in is the focal point of a national issue. Ignoring the point is not that simple.

So why is North Carolina’s police body camera footage law so different, and does it need to change?

Let’s find out!

Why is NC’s body camera law so unique?

As far as I know, North Carolina is the only state that requires a court order to release body camera footage.

This is due to a law passed in 2016 when Governor Pat McCrory signed a law which prohibited the release of body camera footage from police interactions, unless there is a court order for the release of the tape.

Here is the deal, in North Carolina, police body worn camera footage is seen as a judicial record. Meaning that police body camera footage is seen as potential court evidence, and not publicly accessible information. Therefore the footage should be preserved to protect people’s rights to an impartial jury.

The Impact of Police Camera Footage on Court Hearings

The reality is that the publication of recordings of police body camera footage can impact the outcome of a court case. Or even endanger individuals in the recordings, ie potential witnesses etc.

Think about it, police body camera footage is used in court in a restricted fashion. With good reason too.

Without getting into the potential privacy issues police body cameras raise. No piece of evidence should be weighed too heavily in a courtroom. While first amendment auditors often refer to cameras as “objective witnesses”. They often do not display the whole story.

“While a body worn camera can capture events, it does not provide context, it does not tell what happened before or after the camera stops rolling, it does not capture emotions, it does not pick up on body language and social cues…”

-Attorney Falewn O. Cox

It’s true, too much reliance on camera footage can lead to an incomplete picture of what happened. Which is a problem courts have recognized for decades.

Well before body cameras became commonplace.

Body cameras and public privacy

Improperly Handled Police Body Camera Footage Can Be Used Against Suspects

Many civil rights groups suggest that body camera footage should not be used by officers when they file their reports. Simply because they may construe new charges that were not witnessed by the officer in real-time.

“If an officer views the footage before filing his or her report, an opportunity will arise for the officer to conform the report to what the video appears to show, rather than on what he or she remembers.”

-Shakira Cook, of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Death of Due Process

While there are many benefits to the internet. There is no denying that social media has brought due process dangerously close to death.

We live in an era where the court of public opinion plays judge and jury without looking at the evidence.

And at the forefront of this issue is the public release of police body camera footage. When footage goes public, the news and the public quickly draw conclusions that may not be entirely accurate.

Furthermore, they sway the opinion of any potential jurors that may be used in the case that charges are brought against one of the involved parties. It becomes nearly impossible to have an “impartial jury” when the footage of the incident has been viewed by millions of people.

While many would argue that body camera footage should be released to the public in any police involved shooting. Hardly anyone accused of a crime would argue that body camera footage of themselves interacting with police should be made public before their trial. Which is the logical conclusion of demanding that all police footage be made public.

For this reason, I believe that the release of body camera footage should be restricted. But with exceptions.

Disclosing Footage to Involved Parties

While I understand the argument that body camera footage should not be released to the public (at least not before a trial). I am not convinced that those involved, their families, and their counsel should not have access to the footage.

In the case of Andrew Brown, at first, the family was only allowed to see 20 seconds of heavily edited footage. Blurred faces, name tags, etc.

Which lead to the “20 seconds, not enough” chants that echo off in the distance all day long.

Then on Wednesday, April 28th, Pasquotank County Court heard from representatives of the media and the family.

While the judge ruled that the media (who was represented by an attorney for CNN) could not access the footage.

The judge determined the family, represented by attorney Ben Crump, could view a larger portion of the footage. But again the faces and names of the officers would be redacted in the disclosure. The footage is supposed to be released to the family by Tuesday, May 8th.

Which hardly seems right…

While I can see that the public release of the footage can be detrimental, the opposite is true for those that are directly involved.

Police Body Camera Footage May Show Police Misconduct

The reality is, those directly involved with the footage should be able to access the footage for their own legal needs.

Camera footage may show that an officer injured someone without cause. And in the case of someone’s death. The family and their counsel should be able to access the footage in full. Even if they can only view it in a certain setting so that the footage is not leaked to the public at large.

Look, police officers are meant to serve the public, and they most often do. However, when someone dies as a result of a police interaction. The family and their attorneys should be able to access the footage, so they can bring up charges against the officer if they need to.

But you can’t sue someone if you don’t know who they are. And the fact that the Brown family will only be able to view the footage without seeing who the officers were, seems a bit odd.

After all, why do police wear body cameras?

Should NC change its police BWC law?

All in all, NC’s law seems to be a good thing. But again, I can’t see why those directly involved, or their families can not access the unredacted footage.

Though, one could simply argue, if police should not write reports based on body camera footage instead of what they witnessed in real time, nor should any other parties.

But the bottom line is that the police serve the public, and the footage they capture is owned by the public too. Even if in a restricted sense.

At the end of the day, I think that NC’s law preserves the right to due process. But the conditions under which footage can be released to involved parties needs some looking into.

The Bottom Line on North Carolina’s BWC Law

Truly, BWC footage should not be released to the public at large until due process has been had.

Most of the people demanding the release of the footage for Andrew Brown’s death, already believe that he was murdered, and the footage would only serve to eliminate any of the rights involved officers have to due process.

Remember, if they can use the court of public opinion against a police officer, they can use it against you too! No matter what side you are on or the position you may hold.