Democratic House and Senate members want to repeal a North Carolina law that requires a court order to view body-worn camera footage captured by law enforcement.
The call for change comes as protesters line the streets in Elizabeth City demanding the release of body-cam video in the fatal shooting of Andrew Brown Jr. by Pasquotank County sheriff’s deputies.
“It’s also more than unfortunate that the death of Mr Brown, and the actions of authorities afterwards have clearly demonstrated the inadequacy and fallacies of our current body-cam release law,” said Rep. Amos Quick, a Guilford County Democrat, in a news conference Tuesday morning.
Lawmakers filed House Bill 698 on Tuesday, which is identical to a previously filed bill, Senate Bill 510, and would require law enforcement to release footage from body-worn and dashboard cameras within 48 hours of an incident unless the agency receives a court order to seal the video for a set amount of time.
“We know that body cameras work,” Sen. Jay Chaudhuri said. “Studies have shown that body cameras reduce officer misconduct and use of force, and body cameras reduce citizen complaints against law enforcement officials by 90%.”
Chaudhuri said the next step is making sure the public can access the footage.
The bills, if passed, would put the onus on law enforcement and prosecutors to prove why the video should be withheld from the public. Currently, under a North Carolina law passed in 2016, the public must petition the court for the videos’ release.
“We’re asking a family in the middle of their grief to go through the court system,” Quick said. “That seems to me callous. That seems to me cold.”
The bills give a law enforcement agency the ability to fight to have the video withheld. They would allow a judge to weigh at least eight criteria before deciding whether to seal the videos. If the judge finds that one of the criteria is met to withhold the video, he or she is directed to redact that portion of the video for a limited time.
The Urban Institute, a think-tank in Washington, has tracked each state’s laws regarding body-camera footage on its website.
States appear split on whether the footage should be public record, when it should be public record and when it should be withheld.
States like Missouri say the footage is not public record, while states like Kentucky recently made it public. Virginia declared the footage public record unless it would jeopardize prosecution or is considered part of an ongoing investigation.
“North Carolinians deserve accountability and transparency, especially when a law enforcement officer takes a life,” Chantal Stevens, the executive director of the ACLU of North Carolina, said at the news conference. “We need the General Assembly to pass meaningful changes to our police recordings laws to promote accountability while protecting the rights of those depicted in the recordings.”
She added that it should not be up to law enforcement whether the public can view the video.
Shooting of Andrew Brown
An attorney for Brown’s family echoed the need for change Tuesday.
On Monday, the Pasquotank County attorney allowed members of the family to see 20 seconds of the footage that the family’s attorneys said in a news conference showed Brown’s vehicle blocked in by a sheriff’s vehicle.
Brown’s hands were on the wheel of his vehicle when deputies walked up and shot Brown in the back of his head, a family attorney said.
Both Gov. Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein have put out statements calling for the videos’ release.
Stein said Tuesday morning that he offered his help to the Pasquotank district attorney’s office but has not been taken up on it.
A coalition of media outlets filed a petition Monday in Pasquotank County Superior Court for the release of the footage. A hearing is scheduled Wednesday morning.
In the meantime, Pasquotank Sheriff Tommy Wooten also filed a petition for the videos’ release. In a recorded message posted to Facebook, Wooten said Saturday night that he would make that request if he was ensured that it would not hinder pending investigations into Brown’s death.
No one has been charged in Brown’s death.
Chaudhuri, Quick, Stevens, Sen. Mujtaba Mohammed and Rep. James Gailliard explained the new legislation during the news conference.
Gailliard said SB 510 went straight to the Rules committee, where it has stalled since early April. Gailliard said when a bill goes straight to Rules its the equivalent of being put in the trash can.
On Tuesday, Sen. Danny Britt put out a statement saying the goal of the 2016 bill which required a court order for body-camera footage, House Bill 972, was to take politics out of the decision-making process for whether to release a video.
He said he is open to talking about improvements to the bill.
Chaudhuri voted to pass the 2016 bill. He said that was because it was a compromise, but it has become clear that it now needs to be reformed.
Quick, Mohammed and Gailliard had not yet taken office when the bill passed.
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