As expected, Gov. Pat McCrory signed into law today body-camera legislation that essentially defeats the purpose of having body cameras in the first place.
The bill, HB 972, received Democratic support due to the fact that legislators attached a provision decriminalizing needle-exchange programs to it. It is otherwise a terrible, terrible bill.
Here’s our quick explainer on it, from last week’s roundup of legislative activity, but just to sum up: Everybody is sick of police officers killing people and using excessive force and not being held accountable. Body cameras are a way to hold police accountable. A bunch of local governments started ordering body cameras and devising sensible policies for how and when body camera footage should be released to the general public. Then a bill surfaced this session that gives near-complete authority over the release of those videos to the police department—the very people body cameras are meant to hold accountable. And only a couple of people voted against this.
The INDY spoke this afternoon with the ACLU’s Susannah Birdsong, who has spent a considerable amount of time working on body-camera issues.
“Obviously, we don’t think this achieves the goals of transparency and accountability,” Birdsong says. “We’re trying to figure out what we can work with in the language of the bill.”
There may be some wiggle room. One section of the bill, regarding releasing the footage to the subject of the body-camera recording, reads, “The custodial law enforcement agency may consider any of the following factors in determining if a recording is disclosed,” and then ticks off several factors, such as if the recording is “of a highly sensitive personal nature”; if it would “harm the reputation or jeopardize the safety of a person”; or—perhaps the best example of the wildly broad aims of this bill—if “confidentiality is necessary to protect either an active or inactive internal or criminal investigation or potential internal or criminal investigation,” which could basically mean anything.
Noting that the ACLU and others are still “in the infancy of looking into this,” Birdsong says she believes the word may could leave room for local governments to decide for themselves which of those factors police departments are allowed to use to determine whether a video should be released.
“For example, if you are requesting the release of a video of yourself, the clause about the video harming someone’s reputation’ isn’t relevant, since you’re that person,” Birdsong says. “I think, the way the bill is written, it’s discretionary enough that it leaves room for a city council to say, before it releases funds to a police department to purchase body cameras, that some of those factors should not be considered.”
In this regard, Durham’s snail-like approach to body-camera policy—it put off the decision to purchase cameras back in March—may turn out to be fortuitous. The council is on summer break at the moment, but will deal with the implications of this law when it returns.
“We’ll be encouraging Durham and other cities to really think through their options here,” Birdsong says. “And, of course, we’ll be working to collect stories from people who have had a hard time accessing footage. And we’ll be working to amend the bill in the next session.”