North Carolina's controversial move on police body camera footage

While there are still debates raging and protests in the streets over lethal force encounters involving the police, I’d thought that we had at least reached some measure of general consensus over the use of body cameras and dash cams by the cops. While not always 100% conclusive, such technological testimony is almost always more reliable then eye witnesses and conflicting stories provided by the parties involved. Also, it can benefit both the public and the police themselves when such footage is made public. Unfortunately, North Carolina seems to be leaning toward more secrecy and less transparency by making it more difficult for this type of evidence to be released to the media. (Route Fifty)

North Carolina is now advancing legislation that would prohibit the public from viewing footage captured by police body cameras. The state legislature’s House judiciary committee voted on June 7 to approve a bill that would make police camera footage public only at a police department’s discretion. A person recorded on a police body camera or police dashboard camera would need a court order to get a copy of the footage.

“There would be no mechanism for law enforcement to release videos of public interest to the general public other than through a court order,” wrote the ACLU of North Carolina in a statement.

As I see it, the only questions surrounding the release of such video footage involve the timing of when the press gets it. Immediately dumping all footage of incidents which are still part of an ongoing criminal investigation can be detrimental to a successful prosecution. Examples of this include footage which may reveal the identities of persons of interest who may be tipped off when they see themselves on the evening news. But once the case is locked down and the initial investigative work is concluded there seems to be no benefit to keeping this evidence under wraps. It only serves to increase suspicion among the public that the cops are trying to hide something.

This same debate is playing out across the country with various approaches being taken. In California, two competing bills are under consideration, at least one of which would see all footage released to the public as soon as the criminal investigation is concluded. The other would keep the films locked up until any civil proceedings were finished. (LA Times)

Assemblyman Bill Quirk (D-Hayward) wants to ensure that body camera footage, especially in high-profile cases, would be released as soon as two months after the incident occurred — a big change from current practice which provides no guarantee any footage would ever come to light…

Though Quirk’s bill would probably speed up public release of video recorded by an officer’s body camera, a bill from his Democratic colleague, Assemblyman Jim Cooper of Elk Grove, calls for a slower approach. Cooper’s proposed legislation emphasizes a ban on releasing body camera footage while criminal and civil cases are ongoing.

If there’s a civil suit taking place surrounding a police shooting, that seems to be precisely the time when you would want the truth known and have the footage out in the public realm. Unlike a criminal investigation, a civil lawsuit is generally not one where new evidence is going to turn up or additional suspects located. These cases tend to deal with the evaluation of information which is already in hand and the determination of culpability. Secrecy in such cases doesn’t serve much purpose.

The fact is that the police are going to be the beneficiaries of dash cam footage far more often than they are condemned. There was one incident in Las Vegas last summer which demonstrated this aptly. An officer was involved in the shooting of a motorist which drew protests from the driver’s family after James Michael Todora was killed at the scene of a traffic stop initiated by a broken tail light. (You didn’t hear much about this one in the national media because both the driver and the officer were white, but it’s fairly typical of these disputes.)

This could have turned into a major lawsuit against the police department and a huge headache, but officials quickly released the following body camera footage. (Be aware that the audio is cut out for the first thirty seconds or so, but then kicks in. Also, there is considerable NSFW language used by the driver.)

As you see in the footage, any claims of Todora being unjustly put upon or mercilessly killed by an out of control cop were nonsense. The officer went to extraordinary lengths to talk the driver down from a highly agitated state, but Todora pulled a handgun out from under a blanket on the passenger seat and and attempted to shoot the arresting officer before successfully putting a bullet into a second officer who arrived to provide backup. He was then killed in the firefight which followed and the officers were not charged in the incident.

As with so many of these cases, more transparency is better than less, provided it doesn’t impede the ability of the police to catch the bad guys during the early stages of an investigation. If the cops are in the right they can only benefit from the public seeing it for themselves. And if they were acting inappropriately, they need to face up to that in the interest of maintaining the trust and support of the public.


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