Mark Washburn

New police body camera law keeps N.C. citizens in the dark

Officer N.J. Bockler of the Davidson Police Department demonstrates his body camera in 2014. The north Mecklenburg police force was a pioneer in use of the cameras.
Officer N.J. Bockler of the Davidson Police Department demonstrates his body camera in 2014. The north Mecklenburg police force was a pioneer in use of the cameras. tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com

What are we afraid of?

Dangerous things, like the truth.

That’s a logical conclusion one can draw by a bill passed by the legislature last week drawing a curtain of secrecy around body cameras worn by police.

It imposes strong limits on who gets to peek at video shot by body cams.

They shall be held tightly by police agencies and not shown to the public except under the most extraordinary of circumstances, the bill says.

It allows police to show you the video only if you’re in it and if they’re in a mood to share. If they’re not, you can go hire a lawyer and try to persuade a judge to shake it loose. Even then, you can’t copy it.

This is a fireworks victory for the forces of darkness. It strengthens the gorilla grip of authoritarian government. It mocks the notion of an age of transparency.

Increasing use and popularity of police body cameras are not a result of micro-technology. They are a result of troubling, sometimes violent encounters between the police and the public they are sworn to protect.

They do not hamper the authorities in the conduct of their duties. If anything, the opposite is true.

Probably nothing has unclogged trial courts like the introduction of police-car dash cams. Many a case that would have gone to trial on a he-said, she-said basis evaporates in a plea once the defendant gets a look at what the camera saw.

In an overwhelming number of cases across the nation, cameras have shown officers acting responsibly and within accepted protocols in encounters with the public. In rare cases, they have revealed official wrong-doing and been a vital tool in dispelling agency cover-ups.

In Charlotte, costly dash cams are being phased out in favor of body cameras, which presumably better record the interactions of officers and those with whom they interact. Body cams are going to be the state of the art from now on.

And unless you wind up facing charges, their harvest will be invisible to you.

What have the police got to hide? And why does the legislature want to help them hide it?

One provision of the bill is so imaginatively clever that it must have been copied from a pillar of Cold War Soviet society.

In deciding whether it might want to release some body-camera footage, the bill encourages agencies to consider whether “disclosure would reveal information regarding a person that is of a highly sensitive personal nature.”

Like what? Like they’re belligerent drunks, or masochistic cops?

Another provision encourages consideration of whether disclosure may harm someone’s reputation.

Whose reputation? Cop or suspect or random Joe? That’s a standard that’s easy to meet.

Our legislature has been busy carving out exceptions to public access to the public’s business for years. Emboldened by their sterling success, they are now shrouding the serious business of separating citizens from their freedom through police action.

There’s a saying: “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.”

It might be useful to spread some in Raleigh.

Because clearly they’re afraid of something. Something like the truth.

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