Police Video is Good for Transparency, Except in North Carolina
July 1, 2016 (Fault Lines) — In Texas, people are somewhat spoiled. Here, anything collected by the government is presumed to be a public record and is accessible to any member of the public who requests it, unless there is an exception in the law that states the record is confidential. So in Texas, police videos are public records, which means that anyone can go down and ask for a copy.
That doesn’t mean you are going to get a copy of the evidence for the upcoming DWI trial, or police shooting, as there is a “pending litigation” exception, but you can generally get the video. And if they deny it due to the trial, as soon as the trial is over you can still get it.
In North Carolina, there has been a push to “balance” privacy and transparency. Of course, the proponent of the bill is John Faircloth, a state representative who just happens to be a former chief of police, and we all know how much the police like to release video to the public. Especially when they have to explain what’s on the video to the general public. So Faircloth has introduced a bill to clarify that police videos are not public records, and it limits who can request the video’s release. Even then, the police don’t have to release it, and it would force the requestor to go to court to compel release.
Police like video, because it provides good evidence. It’s a lot better now than it was in the early 1990s when it first started to be used for DWI enforcement, and video has become a mainstay in police work. It can also be used against police, and that’s not as welcomed in the law enforcement community. When New Jersey police accused Marcus Jeter of assaulting them, he was facing a long prison term, except the video showed that the police were lying—and both former officers are now serving prison terms instead.
Jeter’s attorney obtained the video through a public records request. Had it not been a public record, the lies of the officers might not have been discovered and Jeter may have been the one in prison.
As writer and activist Shaun King pointed out in a New York Daily News opinion piece, there are many examples where video has shown misconduct on the part of police. Laquan McDonald was shot and killed in the middle of the street in Chicago—but it wasn’t until the city was forced to release the video that the officer involved was charged with murder.
King lists several other cases too, but those cases don’t involve police video, they involve video from third parties, and what is at issue in the proposed North Carolina law is police video.
How many of you believe that police departments in North Carolina are going to be forthcoming with video, especially if it shows the officers in a bad light? Police managers and supervisors are trained to reduce agency liability, not to increase it.
So in North Carolina, House Bill 972 passed the state House 88-20 and the state Senate 48-2 and has been sent to the governor. The North Carolina ACLU is asking Governor Pat McCrory to veto the bill, which is unlikely to happen. This is, after all, North Carolina, and the governor is going to be way more cognizant of the fact that the legislature can override his veto (and that the police support the bill).
Some newspapers have also opposed the bill, citing the case of Chieu-di Thi Vo who was shot by an officer in 2014. The officer was cleared, but the body cam video was not released until just a few days ago. It was a legitimate shooting, Vo was running towards the officer with a knife and the officer had no way of knowing that she spoke little English.
It would have been much better if the video had been released much sooner.
The problem right now is that police departments have this idea, albeit unspoken, that the public doesn’t really have a right to question how they do their job, that they can investigate themselves, and that they don’t have to release information or videos to the public.
It’s not going to work. More and more citizen videos are being released, and more and more officers are shown to be committing misconduct of some type, whether excessive force or lying about what happened. There’s a chance to step up and mend the rift that is growing between the public and the police, but bills like this aren’t going to do it. They’re going to make it worse.
This is just a police secrecy bill, a cover-your-ass bill. It is an effort by a former police chief to continue to do business the same old way.