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Fayetteville chief: N.C. police should release body camera footage

CMPD officers get a first look at their body cameras during a training class at the Metro Division headquarters.
CMPD officers get a first look at their body cameras during a training class at the Metro Division headquarters. ogaines@charlotteobserver.com

Fayetteville Police Chief Harold Medlock said Monday that he thinks most footage from police body cameras in North Carolina should be made public, saying departments that keep recordings secret will risk losing the trust of citizens they serve.

“Personally and professionally, I think we ought to put it all out there,” said Medlock, who left Charlotte-Mecklenburg as deputy chief in 2013 for the top job in Fayetteville.

Medlock spoke at a Sunshine Day event hosted in Hickory, part of an annual event that focuses on open records laws.

The issue is the latest twist in public records laws, which guarantee citizens access to government records. Some records, however, such as personnel files and investigative files in criminal cases, are exempt from disclosure.

CMPD officers started wearing body cameras last year, at a cost of about $5.5 million. The aim was to improve transparency and respond to increasing demands to capture more interactions between officers and the public.

But in the first major test of body camera footage in Charlotte, CMPD Chief Kerr Putney has said he can’t release the tape. Officers arrested a suspect in a hit-and-run last month. A brief cell phone clip captured by a bystander showed officers surrounding the suspect on the ground, with one officer striking the man repeatedly in the back.

Putney said the officers were in the right, and used force appropriately. The videos from officers’ body cameras confirmed that, he said. But Putney said the footage is covered by North Carolina’s exemption for personnel records, and can’t be released.

Critics say that’s an incorrect interpretation of state public records law, and the recordings should be shown to the public so people can see whether officers acted appropriately. The disagreement highlights the fluid state of public records law, with new records outstripping laws that are decades old.

Even as the Internet enables vastly greater access to information, more information is being kept from the public. Ten new categories of records were removed as public records by the N.C. General Assembly last year, including broad new exemptions that could further shield law enforcement information.

Body cameras aren’t specifically addressed in North Carolina’s open records law. CMPD attorney Mark Newbold said Monday he thinks the legislature will need to pass a law defining such recordings and how they may be released.

“Transparency is part of it, but it has to be balanced against privacy,” said Newbold. “We all recognize if an employee is accused of misconduct, there has to be notice and some right for the employee to respond.”

“If there’s a need for this to be more transparent, that’s going to be a legislative fix,” Newbold said.

Medlock acknowledged the push for more transparency around body cameras can give people more information about specific incidents. Fayetteville spent $1.5 million to put 300 body cameras on their officers. But Medlock cautioned that even the improved technology won’t always bring clarity.

“Even if we put it all out there there's going to be some level of dissatisfaction,” he said. A camera could get knocked off, he said, or it might not capture everything officers see during a fight. “The most you may see is a shirt, once the action starts.”

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo

SUNSHINE WEEK

This is Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of open government to raise awareness about transparency in government and highlights how citizens can access public documents and information to make informed decisions about public policy on the local, state and federal level.

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