As she drove home from a trip to Walmart at 11 p.m. on Jan. 9, Brenda Bryant spotted two Mooresville police cars parked off the road with their lights out. She was on her mobile phone with her husband and told him, “They’re going to get somebody.”
That somebody was her. A police car pulled behind her on a dark stretch of a four-lane road. She moved to the right lane and then took a right turn, but the police car moved with her and its blue lights came on.
When the officer approached her car, Bryant, 65, rolled the window down only one-third of the way. The officer told her to roll the window all the way down. She refused, saying it was too cold. It was 18 degrees.
What happened from there is yet another argument for why North Carolina should change a law that shields police videos from pubic disclosure. The 2016 law sponsored by Rep. John Faircloth, a Guilford County Republican and former High Point police chief, declares police video footage isn’t a public record. A judicial order is needed to get a video released.
In two prominent recent cases, police have withheld the videos. In one, a Winston-Salem officer fatally shot a man who was a passenger in a car he had stopped. The public has yet to see what happened in the March 30 encounter. A judge has denied a petition for the release of videos from the officer's body camera and the dashboard camera in his patrol car.
In another case, two state Highway Patrol troopers and a Wake County deputy have been indicted for the beating of a Raleigh man on April 3, but it took a media petition to get a judge to order the videos to be released, more than month after the event.
Faircloth and some police claim that the automatic release of videos could jeopardize an investigation. “That’s good information and it should be made available,” Faircloth said when the law passed. “But it has to be made available within the needs of an investigation. Too many people want to see it immediately on social media such as Facebook. It can’t work that way.”
Safeguards to protect individuals' privacy and investigations are needed. But withholding videos in which police conduct is at issue, or barring their release to people charged, undermines the transparency and accountability the videos are supposed to provide.
Susanna Birdsong, the senior policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, said , “If no one has access (to the videos) other than the police, they’re not serving the purpose we thought they were going to serve.” She said the N.C. law is “one of the most restrictive if not the most restrictive in the country.”
In Brenda Bryant’s case, there’s hardly a serious investigation to protect – she was charged with obstructing an investigation into a lane violation. But Mooresville police said state law prohibits them from releasing the video to her.
Bryant says the officer opened her car door and pulled her out of the car by grabbing her hands. Her right hand has metal pins and a plate in it from an earlier injury. She said the officer pulling her re-injured her hand.
“I said why are you doing this? Please don’t take my hand,” she said. “From then on, I was in total shock.”
She was handcuffed, put in the police car and taken to a hospital where she had her hand placed in a splint. She was then taken to the police station, booked and photographed and driven home at 4 a.m.
Bryant’s lawyer, J. Bradley Smith of Charlotte, has filed a motion to dismiss the case. Meanwhile, she’s told her story to Rep. Faircloth in hopes he would consider amending the law. Faircloth could not be reached for comment.
Mooresville Police Chief Damon Williams said he has invited Bryant to view the video, but she has not responded. Her attorney advised her not to meet with the police alone and he would instead subpoena the video.
Bryant’s case and the cases in Winston-Salem and Raleigh vary widely in gravity, but they each show how exempting videos from public records requirements creates suspicion and confusion.
The videos, with sensible provisions to protect individuals' privacy, should be public records, not just another tool of police surveillance. North Carolina should let the public readily see how their public servants act.