States are beginning to contend with the consequences of growing use of police cameras – and with questions about what they believe the public should see.
Data captured by law enforcement body-mounted or vehicle dashboard cameras would not be routinely available to the public under a bill that has passed the state House.
The bill would restrict public access by treating police body camera and in-car camera images as pieces of evidence in criminal investigations. It is a prelude to a bill expected next week authorizing a wide-ranging study of the technology, said state Rep. John Faircloth, a High Point Republican and the bill’s sponsor. He is High Point’s former police chief.
Under House Bill 713, which passed 115-2 Thursday, a law enforcement agency would have the discretion to release recordings if they serve a “public safety purpose,” Faircloth said in an interview. But they would not be considered public records. An officer would not be able to prevent release of recordings by claiming they are personnel records.
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High-profile police shootings have brought increased attention to law enforcement’s use of body and dashboard cameras and how the footage is treated. After the shooting in Ferguson, Mo., which touched off weeks of protests, President Barack Obama proposed $263 million for police body cameras and training.
Camera-phone video shot by a passer-by of a North Charleston, S.C., police officer shooting a man in the back this month helped fuel more calls for body cameras. Faircloth mentioned the North Charleston shooting as he introduced the North Carolina bill for debate.
Police dash-cam footage is not now a public record, said Mike Tadych, a lawyer for the N.C. Press Association. Law enforcement agency arguments that the footage is part of investigations and not available to the public are sometimes successful, he said.
Controlling access to video
Four House bills filed this session deal with police body cameras, and the technology has become an issue for state Democrats who plan to run for governor.
One bill would have required officers in large departments to wear cameras, and would have set up a grant program to help pay for them. Another of the bills filed would have allowed a law enforcement agency to give a copy of video data to anyone submitting a written request. If the request was denied, the petitioner could appeal to a judge.
Rep. Cecil Brockman, a High Point Democrat, cast one of the two votes in opposition to the Faircloth bill. He co-sponsored a bill that would have allowed public access to police body-cam video, and would have allowed people seeking the information to go to a judge if a law enforcement agency denies a request to release it.
“That is the heart of the issue,” Brockman said. “I don’t feel the police department should be in control of what they release.”
Faircloth said his proposed study would look at having a third-party settle disputes over the footage release, along with a host of other issues. The study would not deal with camera purchases, he said.
According to a report this month by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, nine other states are considering legislation to limit public access to police body-camera footage. Most states are looking to exempt video recorded in “private places.”
The technology is spreading faster than policies for using it, said Nancy G. La Vigne, director of the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
“Policies aren’t being well-developed, particularly with sharing of footage,” said La Vigne, who is consulting informally with some agencies outside North Carolina about public access.
Privacy and First Amendment issues
States and law enforcement agencies have to consider the privacy of victims and witnesses captured in the footage, she said.
“It’s not a black and white issue,” La Vigne said. “There are multiple shades of gray. There’s an interest in protecting the First Amendment rights of a whole host of people.”
Tadych said Faircloth’s bill presumes that all body-camera video is of criminal acts. “What if it is the officer directing traffic at the scene of an accident?” he asked. And the recording may be of something that the person interacting with officer wants released, he said.
If accountability is the reason to have body and dashboard cameras, Tadych said, then it makes sense that the video should be available to people other than the police, he said.
“The video is going to tell you more than anything else,” he said. “It’s going to waive a lot of the ‘he said, she said’ stuff.”
Many law enforcement agencies in the state are already using body cameras or dashboard cameras, and now they’re looking for guidance on how to handle the data.
The N.C. Conference of District Attorneys has more than a dozen questions about how police body cameras are used, who has access, and how public records requests should be handled.
The N.C. Association of Chiefs of Police has as one of its legislative goals clarification of public records law regarding video from police cameras “with reasonable protections for investigatory and personnel information, and personal privacy of citizens.”