The Raleigh City Council has approved body cameras for police. It is an appropriate and sound judgment.
But there is often debate over the cameras from within and without police departments. A window into that debate came to the fore recently in Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s police department.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg police chief’s decision to withhold body camera videos contradicts the arguments made for using the cameras there in the first place.
The chief, Kerr Putney, said he can’t release film from the cameras because it would violate state personnel laws. So he’ll continue to be the one who reviews the film and determines whether officers acted appropriately in arrests. That’s what he did recently when seven of his officers surrounded a man lying on the ground and one officer hit the man in the back repeatedly.
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A bystander with a cell phone caught it on a brief video. The chief said, yes, that video gave him pause, but then he saw body camera footage that proved, to him anyway, that the police were right.
Here lies the rub: The argument for body cameras, which have gotten a mixed reception among officers, includes the point that having the cameras can help remove doubt about officers’ performance. It can, in other words, support those officers when they’ve had to use force – against claims of excesses or brutality. Personnel laws, say advocates of open government, are not designed to apply to body cameras, which capture actions by officers doing their duty – their duty for the public.
As Raleigh moves toward the cameras, the public nature of the recordings must be protected. The city should go to the state’s attorney general for a definitive ruling on whether all the film is public and do what is necessary to protect access. There are other communities around the United States that do just that without issue.
Raleigh needs a clear policy that doesn’t bend to those who want to withhold information from the people. It’s simply wrong for police chiefs and sheriffs to argue in favor of withholding images of public employees doing their public duty. Indeed, police officers and their supervisors are the ones who can most benefit from uniform public disclosure. And if they argue that they are the ones who should review, internally, the film from the cameras, they’re simply setting themselves up to hurt their own credibility.