House Lawmakers Vote To Keep Police Body Camera Video Out Of Public Record

Jun 24, 2016

A body camera on a North Charleston police officer.
Credit Ryan Johnson / Creative Commons

Lawmakers in the North Carolina House have voted in favor of a bill that would keep police body camera video out of the public record. Under the provision, the footage wouldn't be personnel records either.

Bill sponsor Rep. Allen McNeil (R-Randolph) said some police departments have used that label in order to keep recordings from being released.

"Agencies were hiding behind the fact that these videos were personnel records, so we have totally taken that out of the picture," said McNeil, before the bill passed its second and most crucial vote in the chamber.

The measure would allow people caught on tape to request to view the recording of the specific interaction they were involved in. Police departments could grant or deny those requests. If the request were denied, the person could appeal to a superior court judge.

Supporters say the provision balances the needs of law enforcement with those of the public.

"We have set up in this bill a very good procedure to protect the privacy of the people involved, while allowing stakeholders to get access to video for a reason that is compelling," Rep. William Brawley (R-Mecklenburg) said. Brawley's district is home to one of several police departments that have applied for state grants to pay for body cameras.

The bill also allows anyone to request release of police recordings to the general public through a court order.

The bill had support from all Republican members present, but Democrats were split.

Rep. Kelly Alexander (D-Mecklenburg) said the bill didn't go far enough in guaranteeing stakeholders access to footage, but in the end he voted for the measure because of the provision that would stop police departments from classifying tapes as personnel records.

"The status quo that we have right now is not good. Many of the departments across this state have been hiding behind the personnel law to keep from releasing the video," he said.

Rep. Joe Queen (D-Haywood) voted against the measure, saying it gives law enforcement too much discretion to say no.

"The citizens have wanted—they have asked for body cams. Why? So they can see what their law enforcements are doing," he said.

ACLU of North Carolina Policy Director Susanna Birdsong agreed with Queen and the other Democrats who voted against the provision.

"The very reason for body cameras [is] increased accountability and transparency in community-police interactions," she said. "You can only have that increased accountability and transparency if people have some amount of guaranteed access to recordings."

The House will likely pass the bill on its third vote. The measure will then go on to the Senate.