Columns » Trouble Hunter

Recent legislation restricting access to body camera footage renders them moot

Pulling the wool over

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Last week, the world watched Alton Sterling and Philando Castile die at the hands of police. Their deaths sparked national outrage and inspired a lone gunman in Dallas to seek retribution by killing five police officers there and wounding another seven.

Never before has the divide between police and citizens in our country been more apparent. While law enforcement and community leaders across the country are calling for unity and trust-building between police and their communities, lawmakers in Raleigh are seeking to erode public confidence and police transparency.

Governor Pat McCrory signed House Bill 972 into law on July 11. The law exempts police body camera footage from public records laws. Journalists and the public no longer have access to police body camera footage; footage funded by taxpayers for the purpose of police oversight and accountability. In a statement that day, McCrory had the nerve to say the bill promotes transparency.

In 2015, Charlotte City Council voted to spend over $7 million on body cameras for CMPD. The same year, the White House invested $75 million nationwide for body cameras for local police departments. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and President Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing both praised the use of cameras as a tool for protecting both police and the public.

When officers know their actions are being recorded, they're less likely to stray from protocol. The footage can also show civilians the tough situations and hard decisions police officers regularly face on the job. In a police interaction gone wrong, body camera footage provides a way for the public to seek accountability or for officers to depict their point of view. It's a win-win for all parties — at least it should be.

HB 972, however, renders body cameras impotent. Without public access to footage, officers lose the incentive to police their own conduct. Public distrust of police is further increased and the division grows.

During a press conference last Friday that has since gone viral, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney gave an impassioned speech about steps CMPD is taking to become a model for the nation on proper policing and equal application of the law.

"When we talk about the pillars of 21st century Policing Task Force that the president brought together, the first one is having us establish trust and legitimacy in our profession," Putney said.

The sentiment was greatly appreciated, especially since they came one day after the Dallas shootings, but if Putney were truly committed to making Charlotte a national example of good policing, he would have lobbied the governor to veto HB 972. The bill undermines the very pillars he says he's committed to.

Public oversight is essential for trust and legitimacy. The public allows police to utilize tools of arrest, imprisonment and even death in order to do their jobs. It is unacceptable for the public to not have, in return, oversight obtained with all modern tools available — tools we pay for.

Legislators who supported HB 972 claimed that releasing body camera footage would hurt investigations and proceedings, but those concerns are completely unfounded and being used as a smokescreen. Federal and state Freedom of Information laws include adequate exemptions to protect investigations.

And still, there are issues with body cameras that go beyond HB 972. An investigation by the Charlotte Observer last May revealed that, out of four fatal officer-involved shootings in Charlotte, body cameras only caught footage of one incident. There have been high-profile shootings across the nation in which cameras fell off (as police claimed in the case of Alton Sterling) or were manually turned off. Better legislation regarding this technology would include laws that mandate body cameras be properly affixed to uniforms and forbid officers from turning them off when having an interaction with a citizen.

When government agencies want to monitor citizens and we object, their argument is, "If you're doing nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide." When the public needs to monitor police, they do everything in their power to prohibit it.

What are they afraid of?

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