What good are police body cameras, or police car dash cams, if the footage they record is off limits to the public? That question might best be posed to North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory, who yesterday signed into law a bill making that footage inaccessible to the general public, including everyday citizens who were recorded in the footage and might need it to prove police misbehavior. Despite widespread outcry, including protests and submission of a petition signed by more than 3,000 people, House Bill 972 received little opposition in the Senate, where it passed by a vote of 48 to 2 before the governor gave final approval.
The new law is particularly controversial in the aftermath of recent police murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, both of which inspired mass outrage thanks to video documentation. Not only does it remove police body cam and dash cam footage from the public record, it lets the cops decide if the footage will ever be seen. Raleigh's News & Observer reports:
The law allows people who are recorded, or their representatives, to see footage if law enforcement agencies agree. The police chief or sheriff would decide whether to grant access. The law enforcement agency can consider a number of factors in making the decision, including whether disclosure may harm someone's reputation or jeopardize someone's safety, or if confidentiality is "necessary to protect either an active or inactive internal or criminal investigation or potential internal or criminal investigation."
In other words, according to Susanna Birdsong of the ACLU of North Carolina, "A police chief can deny them access for any reason."
The only recourse for those whose request is turned down by law enforcement is to seek a court order. Considering that law enforcement is often less than forthcoming with material that may disprove official accounts of what happened during arrests, and in light of the critical role footage has played in proving police brutality in recent cases, this law seems cynically devised to provide cover for bad police behavior.
The News & Observer reports that McCrory didn't take any questions after the bill signing, but during the ceremony stated that lawmakers have been trying to figure out how footage "can help us and how can we work with it, so it doesn't also work against our police officers and public safety officials."
He continued, "Technology like dashboard and body cameras can be very helpful, but when used by itself, technology can also mislead and misinform, which also causes other issues and problems within our community. What we need to do is walk that fine line."
The problems with McCrory's statements -- like the fact that footage can only work against officers if they use excessive force or violate protocols -- are obvious.
"Body cameras should be a tool to make law enforcement more transparent and accountable to the communities they serve, but this shameful law will make it nearly impossible to achieve those goals," Birdsong said in a statement released by the ACLU. "People who are filmed by police body cameras should not have to spend time and money to go to court in order to see that footage. These barriers are significant and we expect them to drastically reduce any potential this technology had to make law enforcement more accountable to community members."
McCrory, a Republican, became one of the nation's most well known governors after signing into law North Carolina's "bathroom bills," which prevent transgender people from using the bathroom that matches their gender identity. By some estimates, the legislation could cost North Carolina half a billion dollars in economic activity as numerous companies refuse to do business in the state. The Department of Justice has filed suit against the state to stop enforcement of the discriminatory law. Nearly 70 businesses, including "American and United airlines, Hilton and Marriott hotels, and tech leaders Apple, Cisco, Dropbox, eBay, IBM and Microsoft," have signed a legal brief supporting the DOJ's challenge, according to Time.
It's unclear what challenges may await HB972, also known as the "Law Enforcement Recordings/No Public Record." The ACLU has invited those who face problems to make contact.
"We will continue to stand up for the most vulnerable in our communities and ask any person who has trouble obtaining or viewing body cam footage recorded by police to contact us," Birdsong said.