Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney is no fan of making body-camera videos public record, but even he says a General Assembly proposal that goes the other direction is bad policy.
Legislators, who convene for their biennial short session on Monday, are expected to take up a bill governing footage from police officers’ body cameras. A draft of the bill declares that the videos are not public records. And it gives individual police chiefs and sheriffs sole discretion over whether to release any footage.
“The head law enforcement officer of a custodial law enforcement agency shall determine whether, to whom and what portions of a recording may be disclosed and whether a copy of the recording may be released,” it says.
This is an extraordinarily bad idea. It places too much power in the hands of one person – a person who might inherently be poorly positioned to objectively determine when a police video should be public and when it shouldn’t.
Policy body-cam footage should be public record, with a few exceptions. The primary argument for Mecklenburg taxpayers to invest $7 million in the cameras was to bring transparency to police interactions with the citizenry and to boost trust between police and the community. If the public can never see the video, it does little to enhance trust.
Allowing for some exceptions should mollify those who don’t want the videos to be public record. Those could include not releasing the video when that would undermine a criminal investigation or jeopardize a person’s right to a fair trial.
Even if the legislature refuses to make body-cam video generally public, it should at least not leave it to individual police chiefs to decide. That would invite secrecy in some cities and erode public trust.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Chief Putney agrees.
“It needs to be bigger than the chief of police,” he said during a meeting with the editorial board last week. “It can’t be based on the personality of who has that position right now. That’s too subjective.”
He added: “Here’s my issue with giving all discretion to a chief of police: Most human nature is for me to show those videos that present the best image for me. I’m not going to put myself in that position. I am human. I’m going to have other people weigh in.
“We get our authority from the public but we have to earn it and we have to fight like crazy to maintain it. And part of that is, it has to be bigger than us, it can’t be so focused on one personality making those kinds of decisions. I think that just makes for bad policy.”
Putney says if legislators pass the law, he will still involve the City Council in any decision around releasing video.
Another compromise would be for the videos to become public record once the investigation of the incident is complete and the case decided in court.
“We’re still working through that, but my gut is: Why not?” Putney said.
We pointed out that closed session minutes are made public once the need for secrecy has passed. “And I like that process, I respect it,” Putney said. “We are in the public safety business. We are a public entity, so that’s what we’re exploring right now.”
Legislators should listen to the chief of the state’s largest police department and spike this bill.