Politics & Government

Fayetteville police chief wants more body cam footage released

tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com

Gov. Pat McCrory’s decision Monday to sign legislation restricting the release of police body camera and dash camera footage was supported by some law enforcement agencies.

But in Fayetteville, police Chief Harold Medlock believes the public and police are best served when more body camera footage is released. Medlock is the former deputy police chief in Charlotte.

“I think that police departments and law enforcement agencies need to find every way possible to demonstrate the work going on every day,” Medlock said. “There is no better way to do that than through body camera footage that the public can see.”

Medlock, who came to Fayetteville from Charlotte in 2013, said his department will attempt to release body camera footage when it’s permissible under the law.

“I would rather let our video tell the story – good, bad or indifferent – than someone who has a cellphone who has the opportunity to edit it,” he said. “Sometimes we do ourselves a great disservice by not disclosing as much information as we can.”

The law allows people who are recorded, or their representatives, to see footage if the police chief or sheriff agree.

The law enforcement agency can consider a number of factors in making the decision, including whether disclosure may harm someone’s reputation or jeopardize someone’s safety, or if confidentiality is “necessary to protect either an active or inactive internal or criminal investigation or potential internal or criminal investigation.”

If access is denied, the subject can seek a court order to be allowed to see the video.

A court order also will be required for the general release of police camera footage. Even law enforcement agencies that want to release the footage must obtain a Superior Court judge’s order.

McCrory said he believes the law still ensures transparency.

The American Civil Liberties Union of N.C. criticized the legislation, saying it would hinder the public’s right to know how they are being policed.

McCrory signed the legislation days after witness footage of police shootings of black men in Minnesota and Louisiana gained wide circulation and five police officers in Dallas were fatally shot. The law goes into effect Oct. 1.

“Body cameras should be a tool to make law enforcement more transparent and accountable to the communities they serve, but this shameful law will make it nearly impossible to achieve those goals,” Susanna Birdsong, policy counsel for the ACLU of North Carolina, said in a statement.

Charlotte City Council did not take a position on the body camera legislation, House Bill 972.

But the legislation is generally consistent with how the city of Charlotte interpreted body camera footage since it bought 1,400 cameras in January 2015.

The city’s position has been that body camera footage is part of an employee’s personnel file. That would make them exempt from release.

City Attorney Bob Hagemann said the law hadn’t been clear on whether body camera footage would be public. He said the new legislation removes any ambiguity.

City Council member Julie Eiselt, who chairs the city’s public safety committee, said she does not think body camera footage should be released without restrictions.

“Just like any video that gets in the public space, it can be manipulated,” she said.

But she said she believes the legislation “went pretty far to favor one side.”

Attorney General Roy Cooper, the Democratic candidate for governor, criticized the law.

Cooper said Tuesday he would have preferred a bill that started with the presumption that the information is public, then added exceptions for situations such as protection of witnesses, informants and investigations.

“I think the legislation could have been a lot better and would have negotiated, I think, a better piece of legislation,” Cooper said.

Lynn Bonner of the (Raleigh) News & Observer contributed.

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs

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