North Carolina bill would greatly limit public access to body cam footage.
The debate in North Carolina about HB 972 reflects a nationwide conversation: under what circumstances can recorded individuals and the public view police body-worn camera footage? Should footage be treated just like other police records, subject to disclosure under existing public record laws? Or is there something unique about these records such that they deserve special legislative treatment and exemption?
If passed, HB 972 would give police departments strong control over when and to whom video footage gets released. It would require disclosure of relevant footage to an individual whose image or voice is in the recording and has requested the disclosure, but only if the police chief determines that the footage can be disclosed, and only if a long list of exceptions is not met. (And even when individuals are allowed to view the footage, they wouldn’t be allowed to make a copy of it.) In addition, if an individual’s request for disclosure is denied, the individual would then need to obtain a court order to obtain access to the footage. For disclosure to the general public, HB 972 severely restricts public access: “Recordings in the custody of a law enforcement agency shall only be released pursuant to a court order.”
Some see such a legislative regime as directly contradicting the camera’s promise of accountability. According to Susanna Birdsong, policy counsel for the ACLU of North Carolina, 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. Many people simply cannot afford to bring a claim in court in order to obtain body camera footage.
As Michael Rich, a law professor at Elon University argues in Pacific Standard:
My general concern with the bill is that it treats a category of footage — these videos that are generated by body worn and dashboard cameras that obviously fall within the definition of public record in the North Carolina law — differently than all other public records. It’s just not clear to me why this category of video footage is so different than everything else … Body-worn camera footage is really good evidence of what happened during interactions between police and civilians, and it almost seems like, for some reason, police departments as well as members of the North Carolina legislature don’t want people to see it.