Body camera footage isn't public record in North Carolina -- what this means for police transparency in an era of reform

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Over the past year, communities across the nation have grabbled with how to repair relationships between citizens and police. In North Carolina, Governor Roy Cooper's Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice recommending 125 solutions to improve the entire criminal justice system statewide.

To improve accountability, task force members recommended mandating body cameras in all police agencies in the state.

"We really believe that all law enforcement officers should have bodycams and all cars should have dashcams. And that way, there will be an objective reporting of what happened and that's in the interest of not only the citizen but also the law enforcement officer," explained North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein who also served on the task force.

If adopted, the state would expand the use of body cameras but not necessarily the access to the footage.

Body camera footage in North Carolina is not considered a public record.

This means, unlike many other documents that detail the actions of public officials, the footage is not required to be provided to citizens upon request. Instead, individuals need to navigate the court system to file a petition for the release.

"We start in North Carolina with the presumption that these aren't public records at all and that is probably the biggest most important feature of our law compared to states that are doing better, is that they start with the presumption that eventually, if not immediately in some cases, those recordings are going to become public or already are. We start from the opposite posture," explained Brooks Fuller, the director of NC Open Government Coalition.

The ABC11 I-Team recently filed a petition with the Cumberland County Superior Court for the release of footage from a 2017 arrest. The process involved a significant filing fee, filing out complex legal to file the case and schedule a hearing. After weeks of waiting, the I-Team, like many others going through the process, had to make the case before a judge on why the footage is in the public interest.

Judges weigh multiple factors including if the footage contains confidential or highly sensitive information, if the release would jeopardize the safety of a person or create a threat to the administration of justice.

The decision to release the footage rests with the judge. In ABC 11's case, the footage was not made public.

"The problem is that we put the onus on the public to make a convincing case why a public record or what ought to be a public record, ought to be made public and given to journalists or to concerned citizens or activists and it just seems like the balance is out of whack," Fuller said.

The process is easier for individuals who are in the footage and for their attorneys; however, the current law also inhibits government officials and members of citizen review boards from easily reviewing the footage.

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein said he thinks the state's law can do better at promoting transparency.

"We recognize that in order to build trust between the public and law enforcement, the public needs to be able to know what's going on. And the vast majority of the overwhelming majority of interaction between law enforcement and the general public are positive and helpful and constructive, and I think it can only serve to build that trust for folks to realize how enforcement is effectively serving us," Stein said.

Other recommendations made by the task force include providing the footage to governing bodies and citizen review boards. The task force does not recommend making the footage public but does recommend releasing footage of 'critical' incidents to the public after 45 days.

"At a certain point, it really is appropriate for the public to have access to this. We want to make sure, also, not only that the investigation is allowed to be carried out appropriately, but that people who have privacy interests at stake, can have their privacy protected," Stein said.

Another concern of making footage public is protecting the privacy of individuals captured on the body camera.

These recommendations are included in a bill filed by Senator Natalie Murdock in the North Carolina Senate called the 'Equity in Justice Act of 2021.'

"We see the need for more funding for body cameras, we see the need for more clarity in the legislation and we also see the need for a culture that will really enforce usage of body cameras," Murdock said.

She said just beginning to have this footage in every agency will be a good first step in ensuring accountability internally and in courts. She said she see this legislation as a first step in hopefully expanding access in North Carolina

"I think the public at large needs to see it so they can really understand what communities of colors have been enduring for decades. It's one of those topics that I don't think you can really understand and wrap your head around it until you see the footage," Murdock said.

Her bill is currently being reviewed by a committee.

"I am definitely glad that we are embarking on this first step so we can do a better job at transparency and creating more trust with members of the public so they can see for themselves what is occurring during these incidents," Murdock said.
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