Activists demand the release of the full body cam video
North Carolina’s elected leaders would get new access to watch police video without a judge’s order under a state bill, but they’d have to keep it confidential.
Current North Carolina law requires a court order before law enforcement footage can be shown — even to elected local officials. That could change under a new proposal from one of the original authors of the state’s 2016 body camera law.
Rep. John Faircloth, a Republican from Guilford County and a retired police chief, says he’s heard complaints from some elected officials that the current law restricts their ability to see police video, especially as local officials respond to community criticism in the aftermath of deadly use-of-force cases.
Faircloth’s bill would amend current body camera law by allowing city or county officials to vote on whether to view select law enforcement footage. A majority vote of a municipal governing board, under the proposed change, would permit a police agency to show video to elected officials behind closed doors.
The bill would also permit citizen review boards, which hear complaints against police officers, to view video footage in private. In those cases, a court order wouldn’t be needed. But Faircloth’s bill would require elected officials, as well as municipal managers and members of review boards, to sign confidentiality agreements, prohibiting them from disclosing details about the video. Violating the confidentiality agreement would be a misdemeanor crime.
“They’re not supposed to discuss what they see or what kind of opinions they have about it,” Faircloth said in an interview with the Observer Friday.
In Charlotte last week, city council members say they were shown video footage from the March 25 police shooting of Danquirs Franklin just before the video went public. A two-minute, 20-second clip of the video was pending public release last Monday at 2 p.m., under a judge’s order. But the council members saw a nearly 11-minute video ahead of time.
Three days later, as community activists charged city officials with holding back video from the shooting, Mayor Vi Lyles said the council’s viewing of a longer video was “inadvertent.”
“I ask for your continued understanding as we work through this process,” Lyles said in a statement. “After the Superior Court ruled on the release of the body worn cameras, I and the council viewed what we thought was soon-to-be available to the public. That was our intent. Inadvertently, we were shown more of the video than we should have.”
Later, city of Charlotte Attorney Patrick Baker said he didn’t know if that extended preview of video for council members violated the state law, which places broad restrictions on law enforcement footage.
“It’s not clear ... whether you can or you can’t do that,” Baker said.
But the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina says what happened in Charlotte with city council members previewing body camera footage likely isn’t allowed under current law. Faircloth’s bill, if passed, would make that possible in the future, but Molly Rivera, an ACLU NC spokesperson, says the state’s law would still restrict transparency and public access to law enforcement records.
Faircloth’s bill for giving access to elected officials to police video but prohibiting them from talking about it, Rivera said, “does not provide public transparency.”
“It’s still severely limiting who has access,” she said. “(The bill) does not go far enough to correct the existing problems we have now under current law.”
Current law, passed in 2016, prohibits police agencies in North Carolina from releasing video footage captured by dash cameras or officer-worn body cameras, except when ordered by a judge. Any member of the public may petition the court for a video to be released and law enforcement agencies are allowed to show videos to individuals or their personal representatives if they are seen in the footage.
Those parts of the body camera law, Faircloth said, would remain the same under his bill. His proposed changes have been in the works for more than a year, he said.
Faircloth said he believes his bill has a good chance of passing and he’s open to more ideas and debate.
“We still haven’t found all the answers to this,” he said in a phone interview Friday.
The bill has two other Republican co-sponsors and three Democratic co-sponsors, including Reps. Carla Cunningham and Kelly Alexander, both of Charlotte.