Since body camera technology exploded into the public safety environment, the devices have captured all manner of encounters between police and everyday citizens. From the all-too-common police shooting to heroic acts in the line of duty, the wearable technology has been there recording things the public might never otherwise see or hear about.
But this glimpse into the seemingly mysterious world of policing isn’t without its problems. The footage recorded during certain incidents, like the recent shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., July 5, have some in the state legislative space considering passing laws to make such footage inaccessible to the public.
Prior to body cameras, police controlled the narrative around major incidents: whether a suspect had a gun or knife, how they acted when police approached their vehicle, and whether or not the citizen they encountered reached for something under the seat in a threatening manner. Whatever the case, the public would hear the police version of the story each time, every time.
Today, however, police departments are relying more on video to prove their officers acted in accordance with the law, but sometimes video leaves more questions than it answers. And as The New York Times reported in April 2016, video is often difficult to interpret after the fact.
The push and pull over police video led North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory to sign legislation that closed off police footage from public viewing. House Bill 972, signed July 11, effectively cuts off access to the videos taken by officer-worn devices and those recording from police vehicles, otherwise known as dashboard cameras or “dash cams.” Additionally, it is at a law enforcement agency's discretion to allow the review or release of footage to those recorded during an interaction — and they can also deny requests at will.
In this situation, a court order would be the only way to access denied footage.
From the perspective of the North Carolina American Civil Liberty Union (ACLU), the new law is an affront to the basic premise of the body cameras: transparency in policing. The limitations outlined in legislation could create a gap in the larger narrative and make accessing the information exponentially more difficult, said Susanna Birdsong, a North Carolina ACLU policy counsel.
“I think what HB 972 does is foreclose the opportunity for body cameras to really be those tools for transparency and accountability here in North Carolina," she said, "because there is no minimum guaranteed amount of access to the footage by anyone except for the police.”
The law is slated to go into effect in October 2016. And while Birdsong said there is conversation around how to potentially repeal or amend the law, she noted that the North Carolina ACLU is interested in hearing from people directly impacted by the new rules.
“We’re really wanting to know once this law goes into effect in October how it’s going to work,” the counselor said. “If there is something that happens that is in the public interest, such as an officer-involved shooting or a use-of-force incident, and there is no public access to the body camera footage that might show that event, we want to know about those things so that we can use those stories and instances to help in our advocacy work going forward.”
On the flipside of this argument, law enforcement organizations supported what they see as a much-needed clarification of the laws around body cameras. In a statement posted to Gov. McCrory's website, the North Carolina Troopers Association and the North Carolina Sheriffs' Association said they supported the legislation.
“[Prior] provisions of law were dispersed in the General Statutes, were difficult to interpret and difficult to apply, often being subject to multiple and conflicting interpretations,” the NCSA said in the statement. “[House Bill 972] places all of the applicable law into one statute, that is written in easy to understand and easy to implement language, that provides far more disclosure than under the prior law. The new law also provides a simple procedure for viewing or obtaining a copy of a video in appropriate circumstances. If a difference of opinion exists about whether or not release of a particular video is appropriate, then the decision gets made by a ‘neutral and detached’ judicial official (i.e., a judge) based on specific criteria clearly listed in the new law.”
But North Carolina is not the only state that has considered a move toward limited access to police footage. On July 11, Ohio legislators introduced House Bill 585, which aims to place limits on the circumstances surrounding video before it is made.
For example, video taken in a private home or property where there is a “reasonable expectation of privacy” would not be subject to public record requirement, nor would a conversation with a minor or victim of a sexual assault. Simply classifying all video as public record would not be permissible if the law passes.
In Kansas, house legislation that would have limited access to body camera footage as public record died in committee June 15. The Kansas iteration would have only allowed access to the subject of the recording, victim of a crime or whose property has been seized or damaged, the parent or legal guardian of a subject or victim, or an attorney representing one of the aforementioned categories.
While transparency advocates like Birdsong think there should be reasonable access to police footage, she said there also needs to be protections for people in sensitive situations such as violent crimes or sexual assaults.
Not all jurisdictions are quite ready to decide the best course of action, such as the state of Vermont, where lawmakers and the governor signed off on legislation to study the circumstances, costs and considerations around the use of body camera technology. Senate Bill 174 was signed June 2.
Similarly the New York City Police Department (NYPD) is soliciting input from the community in the form of an online survey around the proposed deployment of roughly 1,000 body cameras throughout the city’s precincts.
Under the terms of the proposed policy, officers would be obligated to record the following: any use of force; arrests summons, searches and arrests; responses to crimes in progress; transportation of a prisoner; when patrolling certain buildings; and interactions with persons experiencing emotional disturbance.
Conversely they would not be able to record under the following circumstances: during internal police meetings or trainings; during sensitive interviews with confidential informants, victims of a sex crime or while conducting a strip search; while inside court or medical facilities; and during public protests or demonstrations. The department is soliciting input until July 31.