In the aftermath of Akiel Denkins' death in February,
advocates for greater police accountability have called for better public access to body camera footage as part of their efforts; police chiefs, such as Charlotte's Kerr Putney, have said that state law prevents them from doing that. This afternoon, the House Judiciary II committee passed a bill intended to clear up state law regarding body cameras, but civil liberties advocates say it's not the answer.
HB 972, sponsored by John Faircloth (R-High Point) and Allen McNeill (R-Asheboro), a retired officer in the Randolph County Sheriff's Department, would give the police and only the person whose image or voice is on body camera footage and a representative (i.e. their lawyer or a guardian) the authority to see footage. They (or the press) wouldn't be able to obtain a copy of it without a court order.
Democrats in the committee weren't so sure the bill would do much to fix the ambiguity. Rep. Joe Sam Queen said that any efforts to clarify body cameras should make it "relatively easy" for the public to access controversial footage. "It strikes me that the balance is strongly on the side of law enforcement," Queen said. "We're putting the burden on the public rather than the other way around."
Rep. Billy Richardson (D-Fayetteville) said the bill "could create a litigation nightmare."
"It’s important that there be some rules and regulations on how these videos are released," McNeill responded. "You don’t want to just open it up and say we should release everything.”
Rep. Skip Stam (R-Apex) also had a doozy of a theory on what could happen if the public gains access to body camera footage, when discussing a clause in an amendment offered by Rep. Robert Rieves (D-Sanford) that would make it mandatory to give access to body cameras to "just about anybody in the world who claims that they might have some civil suit," as Stam said.
"What’s the guy’s name in ISIS? [Abu Bakr] el-Baghdadi? He’s got a lot of money," Stam said. "It's sort of a secret that, rather than blowing up the World Trade Towers (sic), they could bring state and local government to a halt by using some of their billions to send public records requests out the wazoo to every town and county in North Carolina, and make all of these requests just because they say they want it. It would just completely bring the operation of state government to a halt."
(No wonder Stam wanted to seal teacher pay
and Governor McCrory doesn't answer our public records requests
The committee eventually approved the bill, sending it to the House Finance Committee. If it passes that committee, it could see a full vote in the House.
“This bill gives far too much discretion to law enforcement agencies to decide when and whether footage is released – even to individuals who are recorded and who request their own footage,” the ACLU's Susanna Birdsong said in a statement after the bill's passage. “If HB 972 becomes law, public trust in law enforcement across North Carolina will suffer, and the millions of dollars being spent to equip officers with body cameras could be squandered with little or no benefit to the public."