We disagreed with North Carolina lawmakers last year when they passed a bill that set up new obstacles for the public to gain access to police body-cam and dashboard-camera footage. The bill, HB 972, said that such footage would no longer be considered part of the public record.
Already, police chiefs across the state had been skirting public records law by declaring that video footage was part of officers’ personnel files. With HB 972, the media and public would be required to go to Superior Court to appeal for access, and they no longer would have the assumption of videos being public record on their side.
Lawmakers made it clear that HB 972 was designed to protect police, and when Gov. Pat McCrory signed the bill last July, he did so surrounded by members of the N.C. law enforcement community. But McCrory and some lawmakers also said the bill codified a process for releasing videos.
The law, McCrory said, “ensures transparency.”
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We were skeptical.
And so far at least, we’re happily wrong.
In the 12 months since HB 972 went into effect, the Observer has gone to court four times to get access to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department footage of police shootings. In each case, access was granted, including Superior Court Judge Todd Pomeroy’s ruling last week that CMPD should release footage of a Sept. 6 police shooting that resulted in the death of Reuben Galindo.
That 4-for-4 makes for a far better batting average than the Observer had under the old system. What’s happened?
In each case, judges have faced an essential question: Is there a compelling public interest for the video to be released? The Observer has argued yes, that there are important and ongoing discussions happening in Charlotte about police shootings, and that transparency enhances public trust and police accountability.
Opposing attorneys have disagreed, saying that releasing video might prejudice potential juries. Notably, the Galindo video hearing was the first in which a CMPD officer, Daniel Guerra, was still being investigated for criminal misconduct. Guerra’s attorney, along with the D.A.’s office, argued that making footage public might interfere with the investigation.
But Pomeroy, like the three judges before him, nodded to transparency and the public interest. Given the fragile relationship between the black community and police – and the residue that lingers in Charlotte from the Keith Lamont Scott shooting and protests – we think it was the right call.
Was it the right process to get there? Mecklenburg Sen. Joel Ford thinks so. Ford, a Democrat, voted for HB 972 and took some heat for it during his losing campaign for Charlotte mayor. Ford told the editorial board this week that he believed HB 972 would provide the public with a better process to gain access to videos.
We’re far from certain that was the motivation of most – or even many – lawmakers. We also worry that some people and media might not have the resources to go to court for video, as the law now requires. But we do know that so far, we were wrong about HB 972, and that’s good news for the public.