Gov. Pat McCrory has signed off on a bill regulating the use of body cameras in police departments, claiming that this ham-handed legislation is in the best interests of the public.
The law will make it virtually impossible for the public to gain access to footage from “body cams,” which more and more law enforcement agencies are using to record police interactions with the public. The cameras have become more widespread after confrontations, some deadly and some with racial overtones, involving officers around the country.
The cameras are a good idea, but they’re not popular with some in law enforcement. In North Carolina, agencies succeeded in getting the General Assembly – including both Republicans and Democrats – to pass a law restricting access to footage from the cameras. Agencies have hidden behind claims that releasing the footage would violate the privacy of those involved, or they’ve claimed the footage is part of personnel files, which they’re allowed to keep secret.
This law leaves the power to release footage, or not to release it, in the hands of sheriffs and chiefs of police. So those who have a self-interest in protecting the law enforcement interest in any incident get to be in charge. To get footage that was denied, a person would have to get a court order, another hoop for ordinary citizens.
This is an insult to the public’s right to know. As Susanna Birdsong of the American Civil Liberties Union in North Carolina said, “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.”
Law enforcement lobbyists don’t seem to understand that given some troubling incidents of late, the credibility of officers would only be enhanced with body cameras and, just as important, by providing public access to the footage from those cameras. Yes, sometimes the footage might show errors in judgment on the part of officers. But other times, such footage might well support the officer or deputy’s version of what happened. Under this law, the presumption will be that law enforcement will make footage available if it supports their side of a story but will be reluctant if it does not.
And that presumption affects the credibility of all in law enforcement.
The governor could have used his own judgment to see the problems with this legislation and veto it. Unfortunately, he failed that duty.