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Editorials: General Assembly is wrongfully keeping public records from the public

Several North Carolina newspaper editorial pages have rightfully blasted state lawmakers this week for their actions last year and this to keep police videos hidden from public view. This morning’s Greensboro News & Record [1] had this to say about the current law which has prevented members of the the public from seeing footage of a teenager being roughed up by police:

“The utter ridiculousness of a state law that restricts public viewing of police video was in full bloom this week in Greensboro.

After viewing body camera footage of an incident last year in which teenager Jose Charles says he was manhandled and wrongly arrested by police, Mayor Nancy Vaughan, flanked by three fellow City Council members, announced Wednesday that they believe officers acted appropriately. Their assessment follows similar conclusions from police Chief Wayne Scott and City Manager Jim Westmoreland.

‘It isn’t a close call,’ Councilman Justin Outling said of what he saw in the body-camera video. Fellow council members Marikay Abuzuaiter and Nancy Hoffmann nodded in agreement. They also expressed concern that community protesters who have rallied behind Jose and his mother, Tamara Figueroa, haven’t seen the video — and were merely assuming certain facts to be true.

Yet, there’s no way the protesters can see the police footage. None of us can. And that’s the problem.

Making the video available to the public could put to rest the conflicting accounts and quell the rumors and distrust that naturally occur when we’re left to speculate. But a state law passed in 2016 won’t allow it.”

Amazingly, however, state lawmakers want to make the already broken law worse. As the Greenville Daily Reflector argued Tuesday [2] in a reprint of a Wilson Times editorial:

“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….

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.”

And the Winston-Salem Journal said this on Monday [3]:

“This is all ridiculous. As we’ve said in this space before, this footage is public record and belongs to all citizens, especially in turbulent times, and members of the legislature, whom we also pay, must mandate that be so.

That footage can clear officers, or, in some cases, implicate them. Either way, we pay for the officers and the cameras, so the footage should belong to us.”