A committee in the North Carolina Senate voted Monday to rewrite part of the state’s law for police body-camera and dash-camera footage, in an effort to increase transparency surrounding deadly incidents involving the police.
The recent police killing of Andrew Brown Jr. in Elizabeth City has made national news and reignited a debate over the state’s rules surrounding body-cam footage. State law currently requires the media, or family members of people killed by police, to go to court to convince a judge to make the footage public.
The changes proposed Monday would keep the current system for making the footage public. However, the change would allow the family or representatives of anyone killed or seriously injured by the police to watch the footage within five days of the incident.
“The family needs to know,” said Sen. Toby Fitch, a Democrat from Wilson who proposed the changes.
Law enforcement would have the opportunity to object, saying they either shouldn’t show the video at all or should redact parts of it. But the burden would now be on law enforcement to prove that, rather than the burden falling on the family to make an argument for seeing the footage, as is currently the case in state law.
Sen. Danny Britt, a Republican from Lumberton, chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee that approved the changes Monday. He said he began working last week with Fitch and other Black lawmakers, particularly Democratic Sen. Don Davis of Greenville, “on discussing some of these changes and getting to a good consensus point.”
Other Republican lawmakers also got on board — necessary for any change in the GOP-controlled legislature — and the committee approved the changes. They were attached to a larger bill, Senate Bill 300, and approved with several other amendments.
The bill could be voted on by the full Senate as early as this week, after which it would go to the House of Representatives and, if it also passes there, to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper for final approval.
Restoring police authority
State law also does not currently allow police to make their body-cam footage public on their own, for instance if they think it would exonerate their officers who are being accused of misdeeds. So the changes proposed Monday, if passed into law, would also remove that concern.
Until just a few years ago, a gap in state law meant each individual law enforcement agency could decide whether to release footage, based on the opinion of local officials. A few agencies had released footage when they felt their officers were being wrongfully criticized. The Chatham County Sheriff’s Office released footage in 2009, for example, when deputies killed a man who shot at them and injured two deputies.
The state’s current body-cam law passed in 2016 and removed that ability of police to make body-cam footage public. The law does give police broad authority to object to the footage becoming public while the judge is making his or her decision. They can cite numerous reasons for keeping the footage secret, PolitiFact North Carolina wrote in 2016, ranging from concerns over jeopardizing an ongoing investigation, to concerns about embarrassing footage that might hurt someone’s reputation.
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