Crime & Courts

Bills would require most N.C. police to wear cams

Two bills in the House would require the majority of North Carolina law enforcement officers to wear and activate body cameras during certain interactions with the public.

One of the bills has bipartisan support, while the other does not. Rep. Edward Hanes Jr., a Democrat from Forsyth County, is a primary sponsor of both House bills, 395 and 537, which essentially have the same goal: to put body cameras on about 60 percent of North Carolina officers by January 2017 and help pay for them.

Both bills would set aside $10 million over the next two years to provide $1 for every $5 that departments spend on purchasing cameras and retaining the recordings.

But one of the bills, House Bill 395, goes further, spelling out how the cameras should be used and how the footage should be handled. The heads of many law enforcement agencies objected, Hanes said, saying they are already working to determine the best policies on body cameras.

So Hanes introduced the second bill stripped of most of the policy language and picked up two Republican sponsors. “We don’t want to tell law enforcement how to do their job,” Hanes said. “We want to make sure we protect relationships between law enforcement and the community.”

Hanes expects House Bill 537 to go further, because it has bipartisan support and allows members of law enforcement to be the policy experts.

“We want a clean bill so folks feel there are no fingers being pointed either way,” Hanes said.

Rep. Jason Saine, a Republican sponsor of the bill, said body cameras are not a partisan issue but something that makes sense. Police in his city of Lincoln just added body cameras, and Saine said officers say they like wearing them because it keeps them professional and often causes citizens they interact with to be more pleasant.

In January, the Charlotte City Council voted unanimously to spend $7 million on body cameras for its police force, vowing to equip each patrol officer with the lipstick-size device by October.

According to Taser International, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department ordered 1,425 body cameras, five years of warranty coverage and use of, a cloud-based storage and management system where police videos are automatically uploaded.

Other North Carolina law enforcement agencies, including the Durham, Chapel Hill, and Garner police departments and the Wake County Sheriff’s Office, are testing and evaluating camera models. Police in Cherryville, Davidson, Knightdale and Hillsborough are among those already using them. Gastonia has a pilot program.

Legislators hope the state can help with those costs.

Rep. Cecil Brockman, a Democrat from Guildford County, sponsored the policy-laden bill but says he would support the bipartisan version if it comes to the House floor. Brockman said the recent shooting of North Charleston, S.C., resident Walter Scott by a police officer now charged with murder shows why the cameras are needed.

“These slayings are becoming far too common, and as a young, black man I am gravely concerned that they continue to happen to people who look like me,” Brockman said. “This horrible incident shows why police body cameras are now an absolute necessity in order to provide transparency for citizens and law enforcement.”

Rep. Elmer Floyd, a Democrat from Cumberland County, says he will file another bill within the week to study the feasibility of body cameras, along with issues such as training, cost, and the storage and retention of footage.

“What we are trying to do is get a bill that can he heard,” said Floyd, a sponsor of House Bill 395. “If the other one is not able to move, maybe this one will.”

Sarah Preston, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, said body cameras would be a “win win” for the community and law enforcement.

“The community has oversight over the officers,” Preston said. “And it protects law enforcement from frivolous accusations of misconduct.”

But Preston added that there needs to be some minimum of state-wide policy that covers when and how body cameras are activated and who can access the video. “Anyone who is subject to the recording should have access to the video,” she said. “And if something has public interest of some kind, it should be released.”

Observer Staff writer Cleve R. Wootson Jr. contributed.