On Saturday, 1 October 2016, House Bill 972 went into effect across North Carolina. Just the night prior, the Charlotte Mecklenberg Police Department announced it would release the entire dash camera and body camera footage capturing the events of the 20 September police-shooting death of Keith Lamont Scott. That announcement looks to be the last of its kind by a North Carolina police department since, effective 1 October, no police department can release a police-worn body camera recording without an individual’s petition and a North Carolina Superior Court order. Because the incident occurred prior to 1 October, the prohibition against police departments releasing the recordings does not affect the Scott footage.
From this point forward House Bill 972 dictates the procedures for both disclosure (viewing) and release (obtaining a copy) of a police-worn body camera recording. In order to request disclosure, you must qualify as someone whose image or voice is in the recording, or their authorized personal representative. The request must be in writing to the head of the police department and specifically describe the date, time, and activity contained in the recording. The police chief must, within three days, either approve or deny disclosure based upon very broad discretionary factors such as whether the recording contains otherwise confidential information, would reveal information about a person that is highly sensitive and personal, might harm the reputation or jeopardize the safety of a person, of if confidentiality is “necessary to protect either an active or inactive internal or criminal investigation or potential internal or criminal investigation.” So, pretty much anything goes for the police chief in his determination regarding disclosure. This decision is only reviewed for an abuse of discretion, which as explained is vastly expansive.
The release of a recording must be ordered by a Superior Court judge, who must first consider similar factors that a police chief does in disclosure decisions, except that the court may also consider whether the release is necessary to advance a compelling public interest. Still though, the factors that a court must apply encourage against release and weigh in favor of a police chief’s discretion.
North Carolina’s law is arguably the most restrictive of all current state laws concerning police body camera recordings, because it requires court action in order for any release to occur.
Among the other states, 14 state laws concerning police body camera footage are widely permissive, oftentimes preventing disclosure only when the recording was made in a private place, and 5 are semi-restrictive but most still allow the subject of a recording to receive a copy without any court action.
North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory says the new law is a balance between public trust and protecting the rights and safety of police officers. Attorney General, and governor-candidate challenger, Roy Cooper has stated that while he supports body camera use by law enforcement, H.B. 972 does not do enough to ensure transparency. Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts has called for the repeal of the law, along with the ACLU.
What becomes of this legislation may hinge upon the result of the state election, however one thing is certain, this law as it stands places significant barriers between the public and body camera footage, and does nothing to provide any statewide guidance for the proper uniform use of this expensive technology.