A plan to make police body camera footage more accessible cleared a House committee Tuesday afternoon, but some legislators and open-government groups say the bill doesn’t go far enough.
More law enforcement agencies in North Carolina are purchasing body cams. The departments are under pressure to make police activity more transparent in the wake of high-profile shootings involving officers. 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.
But current law doesn’t address access to the footage, so many agencies consider it a confidential personnel record.
House Bill 972 would require law enforcement to release videos when a person shown or heard in the video requests a copy. If someone involved is under 18, incapacitated or dead, someone authorized to represent that person – such as a lawyer – can request the footage.
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The bill gives law enforcement agencies a number of exceptions from releasing footage. Those exceptions include footage that’s “of a highly sensitive personal nature,” footage that would “create a serious threat ... to the administration of justice,” and footage that would “jeopardize the safety of a person.”
Denied requests for video can be appealed to a Superior Court judge, and appeals also are allowed when the agency doesn’t respond within three business days.
“It’s important that there be some rules and regulations on how these videos are released,” said Rep. Allen McNeill, an Asheboro Republican and sponsor of the bill. “You don’t want to just open it up and say we should release everything.”
Legislators offered a number of hypothetical situations in which they said footage shouldn’t be public. Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam described an officer who’s “having a conversation with a confidential informant, and they’re gonna get whacked tomorrow if you show” the video.
McNeill noted that some footage likely would show the interior of private homes. And Rep. John Faircloth, a High Point Republican, described a legislator who gets pulled over by a body cam-wearing officer while giving a ride to a woman the legislator doesn’t know well.
“You don’t want some of the stuff officers see on a daily basis to be a public record,” said Stam, an Apex Republican. “That would invade the privacy of thousands of people.”
Several Democrats said the bill gives law enforcement too much latitude to avoid releasing the footage.
“It strikes me as we ought to be making law enforcement accountable and releasing it relatively easily,” said Rep. Joe Sam Queen, a Waynesville Democrat. “We‘re putting the burden on the public as opposed to the other way around.”
Rep. Robert Reives, a Sanford Democrat, says he’s concerned the bill could mean many requests for body-cam footage end up in court. “I’d rather not have people filing suits every five minutes to get access to the video,” he said.
But McNeill said he thinks law enforcement agencies will agree to release footage in many situations. “The chief will be releasing it so the public can see exactly what the police officers deal with every day,” he said.
While the bill would open up access to body-cam footage, it would apply the same rules to footage from dashboard cameras – video that’s currently considered a public record in many cases.
“We oppose taking records that are currently public and making them private,” said Mark Prak, an attorney representing the N.C. Press Association. “Dash-cam access is easy: Nobody thinks there’s a lot of privacy in a dash cam.”
The bill now heads to the House Finance Committee.