Starting this month, only judges can decide if family of people killed or badly hurt during encounters with law enforcement in North Carolina can see police video recording what happened.
State law dictating everyone else’s access to body-cam and dashboard-cam video is different.
Legislation passed in 2016 generally allowed people captured on officers’ cameras to seek permission to watch the footage, as did most state laws in the country.
However, the process here is more onerous than many states. North Carolina law does not, for instance, designate these videos as public records.
Some critics of the current system want change.
Until 2016, law enforcement agencies in North Carolina decided what footage they wanted to release on a case-by-case basis.
Attorneys, journalists and others requested to see video, but couldn’t point to a specific law that required their release. Since investigation records — both criminal and internal — are often exempt from public records law, there was little recourse for members of the public who were denied copies.
The 2016 law outlined procedures for departments to share their footage. Depending on who wants to see the video and how they want it shared, the law outlines different procedures for requests.
People who appear in police footage can write the agency holding the video and request a viewing. If permission is granted, they can arrange to watch it.
Agencies can withhold video for specific reasons, including to avoid disrupting criminal or internal investigations. People denied a look can appeal to a Superior Court judge.
Obtaining a copy of police video rather than setting up a viewing requires a judge’s permission. That’s true for people depicted in recordings and everyone else, including the news media. All must ask the court to get copies released.
In these cases, judges watch the footage, hold hearings to get input from the people involved and decide how the agency should handle the video. They’re free to impose restrictions, like having the agency share only some portions of the video or ordering them to blur out some images.
Some criminal justice activists want someone other than law enforcement to take custody of the recordings and decide when to share them.
Dawn Blagrove, executive director of Emancipate NC, favors a state agency, like the Administrative Office of the Courts, taking possession of the videos.
Law enforcement agencies, she said, “are going to be an interested party in whether or not the family is allowed to see it and what they are allowed to see. It just seems like it stacks the deck in a way that is grossly unfair to the families.”
As head of Fayetteville Police Accountability Community Taskforce (PACT), Kathy Greggs regularly guides people trying to watch videos of their arrests or traffic stops. Footage has often helped them get charges dropped or complaints processed, she said, but the process of getting access is intimidating for people with pending cases.
Those awaiting trial are reluctant to visit police stations, Greggs said, noting that officers have tried to get her clients to comment on the footage despite defense attorneys’ recommendations that they do not.
Especially in cases where police misconduct is alleged, she’d like to see a civilian review board maintain videos for incidents it investigates. “I don’t think the fox should guard the hen house,” Greggs said.
The state doesn’t track requests to police departments or county courts, so it’s difficult to gauge how much of North Carolina’s law enforcement footage is requested or released.
Attorney General Josh Stein’s office sometimes weighs in on cases. But spokeswoman Nazneen Ahmed said the matter is largely in the hands of individual counties.
Courts too busy?
Practically speaking, the law’s current format burdens courts, making transparency possible only after lengthy bureaucratic routines, said attorney Mike Tadych, who represents North Carolina news outlets including The News & Observer.
“I think saddling the courts with this was unfair by the General Assembly,” he said.
Even straightforward requests require “an enormous amount of resources” from both parties, Tadych said, and are especially difficult to navigate in counties where court authorities are unfamiliar with the process.
Since petitioners can ask for as much footage as they like and judges watch the full content, it can take several hours to approve — precious time for judges whose dockets are already stuffed with civil and criminal cases.
If courts must be the ones to handle the issue, they could avoid unnecessary delays by prioritizing controversial or complicated cases, Tadych said.
Assigning video release decisions to state courts isn’t the only tactic that makes North Carolina an outlier — many states require hearings only in rare cases, like prolonged investigations into officers’ conduct or footage that shows civilians in private situations.
Most American law enforcement agencies need outside approval only to keep video private, according to data compiled by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
If North Carolina designated these videos as public records, superior courts would be involved only when anyone requesting them and agencies holding them disagreed on what should be released, Tadych said.
Correction: An early version of this article misspelled the name of Fayetteville PACT’s leader. Her name is Kathy Greggs.