North Carolina: the Next State to Require Police Body Cameras?

A new bill would appropriate $10 million during the next two years for matching grants to help law enforcement agencies "buy and maintain" the recording equipment.

by Taft Wireback, News & Record, Greensboro, N.C. / April 6, 2017
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(TNS) -- A bill introduced Wednesday in Raleigh would require police officers and sheriff's deputies in larger counties to wear body cameras to record traffic stops and their other public encounters.

The bill submitted by state Reps. Cecil Brockman and Amos Quick, both Democrats from Guilford County, would mandate an "operational video camera provided by a law enforcement agency and affixed to a law enforcement officer's uniform and positioned in a way that allows the video camera to capture interactions the law enforcement officer has with the public."

Those recordings would be a public record accessible to "any person who submits a written request to the law enforcement agency," except that the agency could cut out or "redact" certain parts of a tape for good cause, according to the bill that also was sponsored by state Reps. Kelly Alexander (D-Charlotte) and Bobbie Richardson (D-Louisburg).

The bill would appropriate $10 million during the next two years for matching grants to help law enforcement agencies "buy and maintain" the recording equipment.

All the backers of the "Body Worn Camera Recordings" bill are black legislators. Brockman said the measure stems from the ongoing friction between police agencies and the black community that has played out in recent years from Greensboro to other parts of North Carolina and across the nation.

"It's not about any one particular incident that has happened," Brockman said. "But there have been incidents in the past that everybody is very well aware of. And I think that for African-Americans in particular it is kind of in the forefront of our minds."

Brockman noted that officers in many larger metropolitan areas, including Greensboro and Winston-Salem, already are equipped with body cameras.

Quick said the bill is meant to provide a safety net that can prevent those relatively rare instances where things go awry between officers and members of the public.

"While most interactions with law enforcement are not issues, we have seen incidents that have ended in tragedy," said Quick, a former member of the Guilford County Board of Education. "This bill can help shine light on situations like those and hopefully save lives."

In crafting the bill, Brockman said he tried to strike a "transparent" balance between the public's interest in knowing the details of such encounters and police officers' latitude as trained professionals.

Brockman submitted a similar bill during the last session of the General Assembly two years ago and the proposal never made it out of committee in the Republican-dominated House.

He said in a Wednesday evening telephone interview that he hopes the proposal meets a kindlier fate this time around.

But one of Guilford's more prominent Republican office holders, Sheriff BJ Barnes, questioned the wisdom of making the recorded interactions a public record that could be readily obtained and widely dispersed.

Guidelines already exist telling law enforcement agencies when to release body camera footage and to whom, Barnes said.

"I think if this bill passed it would be a disaster for law enforcement," said Barnes, who added that he believes if footage is released to the public it would end up on social media. "If it was all made public, how could you have a jury trial?

"The intentions are good but I don't see this working for law enforcement," he said.

Brockman noted that research suggests that when officers are equipped with body cameras, the technology tends to result in fewer complaints being filed against officers by members of the public because both parties are "on their best behavior" when they know they are being taped.

The proposed body cam law would only apply in North Carolina counties with populations greater than 200,000, Brockman said, as a way of acknowledging that it might be more difficult for officials to carry out its mandates in smaller, more rural settings with smaller tax bases.

©2017 the News & Record (Greensboro, N.C.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.