State Politics

Should legislators regulate police body cameras?

Garner police officer Kevin Murray tests a body camera as he wears one on his patrol in Garner on April 8, 2015.
Garner police officer Kevin Murray tests a body camera as he wears one on his patrol in Garner on April 8, 2015.

State legislators are grappling with how – or if – they want to regulate the use of police body cameras and video footage.

Cities, counties and state agencies are adding body cams in the wake of high-profile shootings that involve police, such as the recent death of Akiel Denkins in Raleigh. But the new technology raises a host of privacy, accountability and transparency concerns.

A legislative subcommittee charged with recommending potential laws met Wednesday to hear from law enforcement groups, the American Civil Liberties Union and other experts.

The legislature included $2.5 million in its budget for the current fiscal year to offer body cam grants of up to $100,000 each to law enforcement agencies. So far, “several dozen” agencies around the state are using the cameras or plan to get them, according to the N.C. Association of Chiefs of Police.

According to the UNC School of Government, eight states are working on body cam pilot programs, and only South Carolina is requiring all law enforcement to use the cameras.

While the groups that attended Wednesday’s meeting all supported the use of body cams, some don’t want the legislature to make the rules for how agencies use the cameras and video footage.

Eddie Caldwell of the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association said many sheriffs would rather develop their own guidelines. He said his group hasn’t taken a formal position on the topic but plans to do so soon.

“The consensus that I’ve heard so far is that assistance is not needed” from state leaders, he said. “The needs of different agencies may be different.”

Sheriffs also don’t want to be forced by state law to purchase and use body cams, Caldwell says. “We certainly hope you will not entertain mandates,” he said.

Agencies aren’t always certain how to handle public records requests for body cam videos. State law includes an exemption for records related to personnel matters or criminal investigations, but it doesn’t specifically address body cam videos.

Caldwell said his group is supportive of a bill that cleared the House last year but hasn’t gotten a vote in the Senate. That proposal would require requests for body cam videos to identify a specific incident, location or time.

He said the bill would mean that agencies won’t “have to go on a hunting or fishing expedition,” and the public won’t be able to simply ask for “everything that happened this weekend.”

Susanna Birdsong of the ACLU of North Carolina said agencies should be required to release videos when requested by a person who’s depicted in the video – or that person’s parent, guardian or next of kin. Videos should also be released when there are allegations of officer misconduct, she added.

“Current North Carolina law limits this access and frustrates the purpose of body cameras,” she said. “Law enforcement agencies are routinely exempting body camera recordings from release.”

The ACLU is also calling for clear policies governing when officers must turn on their body cams. And the group wants to let crime victims and witnesses request that cameras be turned off during an officer interview.

“What we don’t want is an officer to be able to edit on the fly,” Birdsong said.

Law enforcement groups said policies should dictate when agencies can delete footage from body cams, because storing the files securely can be costly. That cost has been a deterrent for some, according to Fred Baggett of the police chiefs’ group.

“Not all agencies want body cameras, at least not now,” Baggett said.

The legislative committee will discuss the issue again next month. “This is a very, very important issue, and it’s on everybody’s agenda it seems,” said Rep. John Faircloth, a High Point Republican who chairs the committee. “We are listening and trying to do the right thing.”

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter