Here Is Why Police Body Cams in North Carolina Need to Be Public Record | News

Here Is Why Police Body Cams in North Carolina Need to Be Public Record

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In August, some white Asheville cops decided to ticket an alleged jaywalker, Johnnie Jermaine Rush—who is, you guessed it, African American—and, after he ran, beat the shit out of him. Here’s the body-cam footage:


And here is what Rush looked like afterward:

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Body-cam video in North Carolina is not a public record. To access it, you need a court order. A person who appears on film can request access, but only to look at the recording. Obtaining and releasing it requires a court order. As is the modus operandi in too many police brutality incidents, Rush was then charged with, among other things, assault on a government official and resisting an officer; those charges were dismissed in September.

But while the Asheville police had opened an investigation into one of the officers, Chris Hickman, in January, nobody found out about it until this week, when the Citizen-Times obtained a copy of the footage: “Police body camera video obtained by the Citizen-Times on Wednesday shows Officer Chris Hickman beating Johnnie Jermaine Rush with punches to the head while Rush was being restrained by Hickman and another officer. In the video, from a camera worn by Hickman, Rush says multiple times that he can't breathe as he is restrained. He also was shocked twice with a stun gun while being held on the ground.”

Having seen the video, Asheville’s mayor is now raising hell:

“Mayor Esther Manheimer said Thursday afternoon she and the City Council are outraged over the beating of a resident, Johnnie Jermaine Rush, by a police officer after Rush was confronted for alleged jaywalking and trespassing by cutting through a parking lot. Manheimer said the council was also outraged they had just learned of the incident which happened in August. …

“‘On behalf of City Council, I apologize to Mr. Rush, an African American resident, regarding his treatment by Asheville Police on Aug. 24, 2017,’ Manheimer said. ‘The City Council first learned, last night, from local media [italics mine], about a highly disturbing video of an Asheville Police Officer assaulting Mr. Rush over jaywalking on Aug. 24, 2017. The City Council and I immediately contacted City administration to express our outrage at the treatment of Mr. Rush and our outrage of not being informed about the actions of APD officers. The Council is calling for a review of the violent acts against a city resident and what swift and immediate action was taken by APD upon review of the video footage. We will have accountability and, above all, transparency.”

To reiterate: they had just learned about the incident, more than six months later, and they did so because someone leaked the tape, which again, state law prefer to keep under lock and key. As my own reporting—albeit in a different city—has made clear to me, had this video not gone public, there is a very good chance the Asheville Police Department would have slipped this incident under the rug. That’s just how this stuff goes. Cops are almost always given the benefit of the doubt, and police departments will bend over backward to not punish their own. 

Obviously, I don’t know that would have been the case here. Perhaps these officers would have been exposed and disciplined in any event. But if so, at least in my experience reporting on cops in cities all over the country, that would be the exception to the rule.

Police departments, like and perhaps more so than any other body of government, need to be transparent and accountable. Yes, they have difficult and dangerous jobs for which they should be well paid; but they also hold the power of life and death, and their actions shouldn’t be kept in the shadows.

This case is a perfect illustration of why body cams need to be public record. Had this footage not gone public, who knows what would have happened? Now that it has, the local government is demanding accountability and promising reform.

How many other cases are there across North Carolina where cops wearing body cams—as they are in Durham, Raleigh, and Charlotte—have used excessive force and gotten away with it? We don’t know, because North Carolina law is designed to keep you in the dark. Unlike in, say, Florida, where I used to report, police officers’ personnel files are not public, so I can’t tell whether an officer accused of this or that has a history of doing this or that. And because the body cams aren’t public—to protect the cops, of course—I can’t prove that a cop has done something illegal, even if there’s a victim alleging it.

Body cameras can provide evidence one way or the other. No longer will these situations be he said, she said. We’ll know. And there’s no good reason to keep the public from knowing.

Because someone leaked this footage, apparently volatile cops could be reined in, a police department will be scrutinized, and Rush just might get something resembling justice.

How many Johnnie Jermaine Rushes are out there that we don’t know about?


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