TAR HEEL VIEW: NC House hides police video from elected officials and public

The elected officials in charge of North Carolina police departments will have less oversight authority than the hired help under a bill that passed the state House on Thursday.

Lawmakers voted to give city managers the ability to view footage from police body cameras, but stripped out a provision to grant council members the same access. After excluding police videos from the N.C. Public Records Act in 2016, the legislature took yet another swipe at citizens by sidelining the proxies we elect to supervise police.

Rep. John Faircloth, R-Guilford, introduced House Bill 797 to fix some of the many problems resulting from last year’s half-baked bodycam bill. The law former Gov. Pat McCrory signed in July made police footage so much a state secret that departments couldn’t even release images of wanted suspects to facilitate their capture.

HB 797 corrects that oversight, allowing law enforcement agencies to share body-worn camera and dashboard camera videos with other departments and release “a single or limited number of randomly selected still images extracted from a recording, as deemed necessary, to identify or locate a potential criminal suspect.”

Faircloth’s bill sought to give council members and managers permission to view police videos upon signing a confidentiality statement. Rep. Bill Brawley, R-Mecklenburg, introduced an amendment limiting access to city and town managers only.

Brawley predicted politics would prompt council members to blab about the videos to the press and public, whether to share grave concerns with their constituents or simply to grandstand.

A debate ensued, with Democratic lawmakers urging passage of the original bill, but the Brawley amendment squeaked by in a 59-57 vote. The full House then approved the amended bill overwhelmingly in a vote of 110-6.

Under the council-manager form of government, appointed executives with training in public administration run cities’ and towns’ day-to-day affairs, with elected councils setting policy and holding the purse strings. Giving hired guns more statutory power than their bosses sets an alarming precedent.

We elect our city and town councils to have the final say over the administration of public services, including local law enforcement. Elected either at large or by residents of their respective wards or districts, council members answer to us.

By limiting city councilors’ oversight of their own police departments, the N.C. House limits the public’s influence, interfering with local-level democracy in a small but profound way.

The entire gambit hinges on a faulty premise — that ordinary citizens must, at all costs, be kept in the dark where police recordings are concerned. Before the 2016 law, dashboard camera video was routinely released to the public and press with no ill effects.

Body cameras were supposed to bring transparency to police work and restore trust between officers and the communities they serve.

Instead, the General Assembly gave us secrecy, managing to ramp up suspicion at a time when lawmen need public confidence the most.

The Wilson Times