In the days after sheriff’s deputies killed Andrew Brown Jr. in Elizabeth City this spring and drew national attention to the secrecy surrounding police video footage here, a bipartisan group of North Carolina lawmakers proposed changes to the state’s body camera laws.
But now that proposal has been rewritten with new input from law enforcement, including a lobbying group representing the state’s 100 elected sheriffs. It drew outcry Wednesday from Democratic lawmakers and civil liberties advocates, but Republicans defended the changes, and they passed through a committee in the N.C. House that was hearing the bill.
“This bill makes access for families who have been victimized inexplicably worse,” said Dawn Blagrove, executive director of the civil rights group Emancipate NC.
The earlier version of the body cam language passed in May, The News & Observer reported at the time, was written by a bipartisan, multiracial group of lawmakers led by Republican Sen. Danny Britt and Democratic Sen. Toby Fitch. Britt is a criminal defense attorney from Lumberton and Fitch is a retired judge from Wilson.
It would have allowed families of people killed or seriously injured by the police to see any body cam footage of the incident within five days, unless the police could prove to a judge that it needed to be redacted.
Current state body cam law puts the burden on the families instead of on the police, so that would have been a substantial change giving more power to the families of those killed or hurt by police. It passed the Senate unanimously in mid-May.
But in the two months since then, the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association helped rewrite the provision. Now, it would leave the decision entirely up to a judge — instead of the version the Senate passed in May, which presumed that the family should be allowed to see the footage unless the police could prove it should be kept secret.
Support for changing body cam rules
Britt — who is the bill’s main sponsor — was asked Wednesday to explain how the new version of the bill is different from the version the Senate passed in May, but he declined. Instead, he deferred to Eddie Caldwell, the longtime lobbyist and lawyer for the N.C. Sheriff’s Association, to answer those questions from his seat in the audience.
Caldwell got up and gave detailed answers to lawmakers’ questions about what was or wasn’t in the bill, as well as the motivations behind the changes.
“It’s designed to be in the best interest of all involved,” Caldwell said, adding that he thought by having a judge make the decision in every case, it didn’t give an advantage to either law enforcement or to a victim’s family.
Caldwell also said that by having a judge automatically review each case, it should mean that the families would no longer need to undergo the expense of hiring a lawyer to fill out the paperwork that would otherwise be required.
“It seems to be a huge improvement to go to court and let everybody involved be heard, and let a judge make the decision,” he said.
Britt has previously said that the bill was written with input from the sheriffs as well as groups representing police and prosecutors, plus the American Civil Liberties Union, which tends to be more in favor of changes to policing than those law enforcement groups. And on Wednesday a top ACLU lawyer said that while they do still support much of the rest of the bill, they did not like the way the new body cam changes were handled.
“The Conference of District Attorneys and Sheriff’s Association is given way too much deference in this body, and I hope that changes in the future,” said Daniel Bowes, the ACLU’s director of policy and advocacy.
He added that the new body cam language “does not have consent, and is harmful.”
In addition to the body cam provision, Senate Bill 300 makes numerous other changes to criminal justice laws in North Carolina.
It would create the first-ever database of violent incidents involving the police, for example — although the new version passed Wednesday whittled that proposed database down from all use-of-force instances to only instances in which the police kill or seriously injure someone.
The bill would also mandate mental health screenings for new police hires, and it would force court officials and police to disclose — not publicly, but to state oversight officials — when an officer is banned from testifying in court due to perjury, racist behavior or other disqualifying behavior. Currently that information can legally be kept secret from all but a small number of people.
Much of the bill already passed the Senate unanimously, and while Wednesday saw several new items added to the bill, many of them — like the mental health screenings — have already passed the House unanimously. That indicates that while the House and Senate have had slightly different approaches to overhauling criminal justice so far, the topic in general enjoys broad support.
One of the exceptions, however, is the proposed change to body cam laws.
Durham Democratic Rep. Marcia Morey, a former judge, said she disliked provisions in the body cam piece of the bill creating criminal penalties for people who are shown body camera footage and then try to show it to a wider audience, like by secretly recording or downloading the footage in order to leak it to the media or others.
Simply attempting to record or copy a body cam video without permission would be a Class 1 misdemeanor, and actually succeeding in sharing it with others would be a Class I felony, which is punishable by up to a year in prison.
“I’m worried about the penalties,” Morey said, although Britt countered that those were already in the version that every single Senate Democrat supported when it passed unanimously in May.
The bill wouldn’t ban people who watched the video from describing what’s in it. They just wouldn’t be able to show it to anyone.
Rep. Robert Reives of Chatham County, who is the top Democrat in the House and a criminal defense attorney like Britt, questioned why North Carolina should continue making it so hard to release body cam footage.
He said he knows plenty of law enforcement officers who would like it to be easier, since they often think it will clear them of accusations that they acted improperly. And, oftentimes, supporters of people shown being arrested or harmed feel the opposite way.
“A lot of times the video clears it up for everybody,” Reives said.
For more North Carolina government and politics news, listen to the Under the Dome politics podcast from The News & Observer and the NC Insider. You can find it at link.chtbl.com/underthedomenc or wherever you get your podcasts.
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