Gov. Pat McCrory signed controversial legislation Monday regulating the release of recordings from police body and dashboard cameras.
There were growing calls for McCrory to veto the legislation because it makes it difficult for the public – including people involved in a recorded police action – to see it. But the Republican governor said the law will strike a balance between improving public trust in the police and respecting the rights of officers.
McCrory signed the bill while surrounded by law enforcement officers from several departments and against the backdrop of fatal police shootings last week of black men by police officers in Minnesota and Louisiana, along with the shooting deaths of five police officers by a black gunman in Dallas who was targeting white cops.
These shootings or their aftermath were captured on the telephone cameras of witnesses.
McCrory referenced those deaths in his remarks and said the law “ensures transparency.”
But the legislation was the subject of heated debate before it easily cleared the General Assembly on a 48-2 Senate vote and a 88-20 House vote. Some lawmakers wanted to loosen restrictions on access. Groups that wanted McCrory to veto the bill because they said it re-enforced secrecy held a rally in Raleigh last week and produced a petition they said was signed by more than 3,000 people.
“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,” Susanna Birdsong, policy counsel for the ACLU of North Carolina, said in a statement.
Body camera footage is not now spelled out in state law as public record, and law enforcement agencies often made it inaccessible to the public by declaring recordings part of personnel files. The new law, which goes into effect Oct. 1, says the footage is not a public record or a personnel record.
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.”
Subjects of the recordings don’t have minimum guaranteed access to footage, Birdsong said in an interview. “A police chief can deny them access for any reason,” she said.
If access is denied, the subject can seek a court order to be allowed to see the video.
A court order also will be required for the general release of police camera footage. Even law enforcement agencies that want to release the footage must obtain a Superior Court judge’s order.
McCrory did not take questions after he signed the bill.
He said during the signing ceremony that legislators wrestled with how technology “can help us and how can we work with it, so it doesn’t also work against our police officers and public safety officials.”
“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,” he said. “What we need to do is walk that fine line.”
The law also allows for needle exchange programs aimed at reducing the spread of communicable diseases. Public money cannot be used to buy needles or syringes.