City and county managers, but not their councils or commissions, would be able to view police body-camera and dashboard-camera videos under a bill approved in the House on Thursday.
Lawmakers are considering updates to a law enacted last year that established limits on who can see such videos. House Bill 797 passed overwhelmingly Thursday after a lengthy and sometimes emotional debate over how to reassure the public about the integrity of investigations into officer-involved incidents without compromising the legal process.
Much of the debate focused on last year’s fatal police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott by a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department officer. In the aftermath of Scott’s death that afternoon, Charlotte was roiled by several nights of protests. After street violence, dozens of arrests and the death of one man in the city’s uptown, Gov. Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency.
Initially, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney released only portions of police video, arguing it was unethical to show Scott dying. But Putney reversed course amid pressure to release the remainder of the footage, which totaled two hours. Scott’s family requested that police release the videos after they viewed it, which they did. A coalition of media organizations organized by The Charlotte Observer also asked the police department to make all the footage public. Other media included The News & Observer of Raleigh, the Associated Press, CNN, WBTV, WSOC, WCNC, ABC News and WFAE-FM.
Release did not require a court order, but it would under the state law that took effect shortly afterward.
The officer was later exonerated of legal wrongdoing.
The new proposal, HB 797, originally would have permitted city councils, county commissions and police review boards to watch police body and dashboard cameras in closed session. Those officials would have to sign confidentiality agreements. But several legislators said they were concerned that closed-door discussions would leak to the public, and that there were no sanctions in the bill for disclosing that information.
The version approved in the House allows city and county managers to view police videos for administrative reasons, such as to evaluate how police behaved. The footage can also be released to other law enforcement agencies in multi-jurisdiction investigations and to find suspects, and to be used in training videos.
The current law and this bill allow others who want to see the videos to obtain permission from a superior court judge.
Rep. William Brawley, a Republican from Matthews, succeeded in stripping out of the bill the provision that would have let councils, commissions and review boards to see the videos in private. That sparked an argument over whether politicians could be trusted to keep executive-session discussions confidential.
Rep. Becky Carney, a Democrat from Charlotte, complained that Brawley’s amendment came as a surprise, and said more transparency was needed, not less.
“What happened in Charlotte, God forbid that ever happens to any other city or town in this state,” Carney said. “But we need to be prepared. ... Why do we not want to take an opportunity to incrementally take these body-cam bills and move them forward before anyone else has to go through what we went through?”
Brawley was unsuccessful in trying to cut off Carney’s remarks with a legislative procedure.
Rep. Scott Stone of Charlotte agreed with Brawley that the risk of leaks was too great. He said those who view the videos could prejudice a jury pool or inflame community tensions.
“We’ve seen things in this state in the last year that we never thought we’d see,” Stone said.
Bill sponsor Rep. John Faircloth, a Republican from High Point who is a former police chief, acknowledged that provision would be controversial and asked the House members to vote their conscience. The question divided the House nearly evenly, with Brawley’s amendment passing 59-57.
The House voted 110-6 on the bill as a whole, and sent it to the Senate.