A North Carolina judge’s refusal to publicly release the body camera footage of the killing of Andrew Brown Jr. shows our state is once again behind the times. 

State laws about the release of body camera footage vary wildly, but North Carolina’s is one of the strictest. In Connecticut, for example, body camera footage is considered part of the public record and only specific incidents, such as communication with undercover operatives, can be withheld from family members or the media. In North Carolina, on the other hand, the release of body camera footage requires a court order, a petition process that can take days or weeks. 

The state’s off-the-record policy went into effect in 2016, and while the body cam law may be new, the suppression of information by law enforcement isn’t. Small-town police forces have been shielded by secrecy and silence for decades. Even now, journalists in understaffed newsrooms often struggle to get information from the police. Online databases with complete records are rare. A police chief might happily release arrest records within an hour or two—unless it’s an arrest for murder, and especially if it’s for murder at the hands of one of their own. The phrase “ongoing investigation” was originally used to help the police operate effectively by shielding sensitive information, but it can also be used to hide a multitude of sins. 

In 2007, however, something changed—Apple CEO Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone. Suddenly, cameras were everywhere. Within five years, 35 percent of U.S. adults owned a smartphone, according to the Pew Research Center. By 2019, that number jumped to 81 percent. 

In the age of technology, police have been forced into almost complete transparency. A reporter no longer has to be on the scene to know what happened—they can just check Twitter. Videos of police killing Black men have started a nationwide movement for justice fueled by collective action. 

Make no mistake: there hasn’t been a sudden surge in the number of Black men and women killed by police. But in the 1920s, if a young Black man was quietly killed in a rural town, who would ever know? Would people across the country cry for him? Would someone 50 miles away know his name? 

Body camera footage was designed to serve the same purpose that the shaky cell phone footage taken by bystanders has come to fulfill—to increase transparency and police accountability. Instead of learning from the times, however, leaders in North Carolina’s justice system are displaying the same stubborn adherence to outdated tradition that they have for years. 

In the history of racial injustice, the deaths of Black people at the hands of police have too often gone overlooked. Now, video footage of shootings, of killings, of the last moments of someone’s life, have finally forced white people to look at the stories of their interactions with Black people and start circling the mistakes in bright red ink. 

The police may not have wanted this sea change, but it’s time they feel the way the wind is blowing and show the kind of transparency that can lead to real progress

In the wake of Andrew Brown Jr.’s death, the need for transparency has become abundantly clear. The confusion and uncertainty over what happened to 42-year-old Brown has only inflamed tensions and obscured the truth. Releasing the body camera footage is a simple way to help clarify the conversation about social justice.

Some hope for the family was sparked last month when Democrats in the state House and Senate mounted a push to repeal the 2016 law, although it doesn’t look like there’s much of a prospect for the legislation’s passage this session, though there’s some hope for a bill opening up video footage for viewing to victims’ families.

The bills calling for police recordings to be released to the public within 48 hours are a start and could come back next year. By that time, video evidence of what happened to Andrew Brown Jr. will also be released. Maybe that can be the push that officials need to put police reform back on the table. Perhaps then, after more than 400 years of pointless death, we can finally consider making corrections.

Jasmine Gallup is a freelance reporter from Cary.

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