Keeping bodycam video secret allows misconduct, abuse

The difference between secrecy and transparency is on full display after body camera footage showed an Asheville police officer brutally beating an alleged jaywalker after a foot chase.

Johnnie Jermaine Rush was arrested last August. While the video remained under wraps, the wheels of justice turned slowly. The Asheville Police Department opened an excessive force investigation against Officer Chris Hickman, and prosecutors quietly dismissed the charges filed against Rush.

But Hickman kept his job and police avoided public scrutiny over the incident. Until last month.

Someone leaked the bodycam video to the Asheville Citizen-Times. When the newspaper published it, outrage from concerned citizens prompted Hickman to quit, led the police chief to offer her resignation, spurred assault charges against the ex-officer and sparked an FBI investigation.

Police footage shows Hickman punching Rush in the head, choking him and shocking him with a Taser. The officer is white and the suspect is black, a detail investigators consider relevant as they work to determine whether race played a role.

“The video’s publication six months after it was recorded sent shockwaves through the city of Asheville,” wrote Mike Meno, communications director for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina. “But the community should never have had to wait that long. It should have seen the video directly following the incident.”

Body cameras saw limited use among U.S. law enforcement agencies before August 2014, when the fatal police shooting of an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked a wave of public protest followed by calls for greater accountability.

Under President Barack Obama, the U.S. Department of Justice offered grant funding to help police departments buy body-worn cameras, with the stated goal of mending rifts between police and minorities by ensuring that people could monitor officers’ actions and hold departments accountable. States got in on the act, too, and within a couple years, the use of bodycams had mushroomed.

North Carolina could have treated bodycam footage like other police records, allowing disclosure unless the video was being used in an ongoing investigation and its release would compromise forthcoming arrests. Instead, our General Assembly passed a law declaring that the video is a personnel record exempt from the N.C. Public Records Act. Lawmakers applied the same standard of secrecy to dashboard camera video, which had previously been available to the public and press.

Under the 2016 law, only a person whose image or voice is on the recording has a right to review bodycam footage — and even then, officers sometimes have grounds to deny them a screening. In order to obtain a copy of the video, citizens and journalists must file a petition in county superior court — and a judge has to sign off on the release.

That’s precisely the opposite of how it ought to work. Bodycam footage should be presumed public, and if police have a legitimate reason to withhold it, let them go to court to have it sealed.

Police Chief Tammy Hooper initially seemed as concerned with preserving secrecy as making amends for Hickman’s misconduct, pledging a full investigation into the leak. While police could discipline an employee for releasing the tape, the Citizen-Times won’t face consequences. A 2011 Supreme Court decision held that journalists can lawfully publish confidential records as long as they didn’t break the law to obtain them.

Body cameras were supposed to be more than just an evidence-gathering tool for law enforcement. They were intended as a way for the public to monitor those who patrol our streets. State lawmakers stopped that laudable goal in its tracks.

Asheville is addressing the thorny issues of race, justice and use of force, but only because a whistleblower released a secret videotape at great personal risk.

“Had the footage not become public, Hickman may not have been charged with assaulting Rush,” Meno wrote in a blog post for the national ACLU website. “Without the footage, community members would not know to call for reforms. And reforms that include implicit bias training, deescalation training and better data collection on stops and searches are sorely needed.”

Reform shouldn’t require a source smuggling video footage to a newspaper. North Carolinians should have the right to review police officers’ conduct and hold agencies accountable.

Our lawmakers locked bodycam video away in darkness. As the national campaign for government transparency known as Sunshine Week comes to a close, it’s time for Tar Heels to demand that police footage is broadcast in the light of day.

— The Wilson Times