Letters to the Editor

Parsing the public’s right to see police videos in wake of SC shooting

The following editorial

appeared in the Greensboro News & Record:

“I … am … reaching … into … my … wallet … to … get … my … driver’s … license,” the late, great comedian, Richard Pryor, once joked about his take-no-chances approach to his encounters with police.

That sad, funny punchline came to mind last week, with the release of a horrifying dash-camera video in which a motorist was stopped by a South Carolina state trooper for a seat-belt violation and asked to present his license and registration. The footage was released only days before a discussion of public access to police video in Greensboro, and there’s a lesson in it.

As the man turns to reach into his car for the requested items, the trooper shoots multiple times, continuing to fire even as the man collapses backward with his hands raised. “Why did you shoot me?” he asks. The trooper, who has since been fired, also has been charged with aggravated assault and battery, and could be sentenced to as many as 20 years in prison.

Here’s the thing: The incident happened Sept. 4 near Columbia. The video was made public Sept. 25, only 21 days later. Even as the investigation of the incident continues, the public rightly has an opportunity to see what the trooper’s camera recorded.

Yet, if this incident had occurred in Greensboro and involved a city officer, odds are no one but police would have viewed the video at this point. The general public might not have seen it in a lifetime. That’s because this city hews to an argument that police camera video belongs to the police and that whether the public ever sees it is up to the police. Or in rare exceptions, the City Council, if it chooses to intervene.

As the city views it, the video recorded by the cameras now worn by most officers is considered a personnel record and, as such, is not accessible to the general public. Thus, police never released video in the case of a woman fatally shot by an officer in March. But it is not alone in clutching fast to police footage. In Charlotte, dash-camera footage of the fatal police shooting of a man who had knocked on a woman’s door after crashing his car has been tightly held from public view, by order of a Superior Court judge.

A panel of experts discussed the question of access to police video in the City Council chamber. It was a welcome dialogue, even if it was scheduled at 9 a.m., when many may not have been able to attend. The city assures us, ironically, that the video will be available to the public.

Clearly, there’s a delicate balance between privacy and government openness. Notes the ACLU in a 2013 position paper of police cameras: “Overall, we think they can be a win-win – but only if they are deployed within a framework of strong policies to ensure they protect the public without becoming yet another system for routine surveillance of the public, and maintain public confidence in the integrity of those privacy protections.”

Greensboro lacks such a framework. The city has held onto footage indefinitely, even after an investigation is complete. That’s bad policy. And if state law needs to change to erase any doubt of the right to public access, change the law.

MCT Information Services