Gene Nichol provides a helpful refresher course on NC’s restrictive body cam law

A lot of North Carolinians have been wondering lately (with much justification) what the deal is with police body camera recordings. If the recordings are made by public employees and paid for with public tax dollars, why in the heck can’t the public see what the videos show? It’s ours, after all. And don’t virtually all other states readily release such footage?

As Prof. Gene Nichol of the UNC School of Law (pictured at left) explains this morning in an op-ed for Raleigh’s News & Observer, the simple and disturbing answer is that our state legislators recently acted to make the videos hard to get. Here’s Nichol:

Tar Heels and the rest of the country have learned, of late, that it’s complicated to get police body-cam footage released here. National news outlets have echoed that, under North Carolina law, a judge’s approval must be secured before such video can be seen and distributed.

But this is not a legal marker fixed from the days of yore. In 2016, after Black Lives Matter protests had for years roiled the nation, often triggered by stunning video records of brutality, our General Assembly chose to impose new and singular hurdles on body-cam disclosure. The statute is recent work, and it had a good deal of now embarrassed Democratic support.

And, of course, as Nichol also explains, the legislature’s decision was not made in isolation; it’s part of a long and blatant pattern of what he rightfully characterizes as “anti-racial equality moves.”

This list includes, Nichol notes, the decisions of Republican legislators to: repeal the Racial Justice Act, enact a law to protect Confederate monuments and racially gerrymander legislative maps with what a federal court described as “surgical precision.”

One could easily add more items to Nichol’s list in such varied areas as healthcare, environmental protection and state tax policy, but you get the idea.

The bottom line: the defenders of restrictive body cam law claim it is necessary in order to keep the politics out of such matters, but as Nichol notes ruefully in conclusion:

Still, I’m inclined to think a larger politics might have been in play. If a massive Black Lives Matter movement sweeps the country, often triggered by brutal photography, make it hard as you can to get the pictures. There will be no racial reckoning here. This is North Carolina.

Click here to read the entire op-ed.

County judge refuses to release body camera footage of Andrew Brown Jr. killing

A judge in Pasquotank County has denied a petition from several media outlets to release to the public the body camera footage related to the shooting of Andrew Brown Jr. Brown was shot dead by Pasquotank County sheriff deputies when they were serving a warrant on April 21.

Superior Court Judge Jeff Foster said that the videos are of public interest, but contended that they contain sensitive information and risk jeopardizing the safety and reputation of individuals involved in the video. He also cited ongoing investigation and court proceedings for his decision, saying, “The release at this time will create a serious threat to the fair and impartial and orderly administration of justice.”

However, the court did rule that the five videos must be disclosed to Brown’s immediate family and one lawyer within 10 days. The Pasquotank sheriff’s office will be able to redact and blur any identifying information including facial features and name tags under the judge’s order.

The judge said he will consider the time frame of the video to be disclosed. “There were certain portions in the video that were conversations between officers, between superiors,” Foster said. “I’m going to evaluate those videos to determine which portions were appropriate to … disclose.”

In terms of public viewing, the judge ruled the video must be held from release for at least 30 days from now but no more than 45 days, pending completion of investigation. Currently, the office of local District Attorney Andrew Womble and the state Bureau of Investigation are investigating, as well as the FBI.

“I want to confirm that Special Agents of the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) are continuing to conduct a comprehensive, objective, and thorough investigation of the circumstances surrounding the death of Andrew Brown, Jr,” Robert L. Schurmeier, the director of North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation wrote in a news release earlier in the morning.

Schurmeier, however, said the bureau deferred to local courts concerning the release of any video.

The judge said that the state should notify the court when the investigation is complete. By then, the court will consider then whether to order the release of the video.

Brown’s death has led to multiple protests. Brown’s family members were shown a 20-second clip of the video on Monday. The mayor of Elizabeth City Bettie Parker declared a state of emergency the same day. Parker imposed an 8:00 pm curfew on Tuesday, and at least six protesters were arrested for violating the curfew later Tuesday night, Raleigh’s News & Observer reported.

WAVY News reported that Brown’s family watched the video between 10 and 20 times, saying that Brown was driving away with his hands on the wheel when deputies approached him opened fire. The family called the shooting an “execution.”

The Pasquotank sheriff’s office has not responded to a public records request by Policy Watch seeking names of the deputies involved in the shooting and any change of position after the shooting.

The full oral ruling can be viewed here and the hearing here.

NC Democrats want a law making it easier to get police body camera footage released to the public

Sen. Mujtaba A. Mohammed

Democratic legislators pressed for passage of a bill requiring footage from police body cameras to be released 48 hours after it is recorded, unless a judge orders a delay.

In a news conference, sponsors of Senate bill 510 and its companion,  House bill 698,   said the proposal would improve transparency.

A 2016 law requires a judge to allow the public release of police body camera or dash camera footage. The 2016 bill passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, but Democrats who spoke Tuesday said the law enforcement shooting last week in Elizabeth City showed its inadequacies.

“Accountability requires transparency and the law as currently written delays that transparency,” said Sen. Mujtaba Mohammed, a Mecklenburg County Democrat.

Instead of requiring a court petition to get footage released, the bills would require release 48 hours after footage was recorded if someone requests it. If a law enforcement agency doesn’t want to release the recording, it would have to go to a judge and say why the video should not be disclosed for a certain period of time.

The obstacles to public release of footage are highlighted by the Pasquotank deputy shooting of Andrew Brown Jr.

Brown was shot as deputies were attempting to serve a warrant.

State and local officials, including Gov. Roy Cooper, Attorney General Josh Stein, the Elizabeth City Council, and civil rights groups have called

for the video recordings to be released.

Protesters in Elizabeth City have called for release of the footage.

The 2016 law allows family members to view footage without a court order. Brown family members and one of their lawyers said yesterday they were shown a 20-second clip from one camera on Monday. More than one deputy was at the scene.

“To think that it’s okay to show a grieving family 20 seconds of heavily-redacted body cam footage after their loved one has been killed by government officials is just plain wrong,” said Rep. Amos Quick III, a Guilford County Democrat.

The law has resulted in “a grieving family and a state with more questions than answers as this family prepares to bury the remains of a loved one and a promise of transparency remains unfulfilled,” he said.

Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Wake County Democrat, said the changes would establish certainty about releasing body cam footage, build trust between law enforcement agencies and the public, and protect law enforcement officers from unfounded accusations.

Chantal Stevens, ACLU North Carolina executive director, said the burden should be on law enforcement to show why footage shouldn’t be public. She said bill should go further to disallow the rationale that video is part of an ongoing investigation as a reason for not releasing it.

The NC Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice that Gov. Roy Cooper created last year recommended that footage be released after 45 days.

Senate bill 510 was assigned to the Rules Committee, a holding tank for many bills that don’t have a chance at passage.

Rep. James Gailliard, a Rocky Mount Democrat, said that as legislators have begun to file bills based on the task force recommendations “they have pretty much been placed in the trash can.”

“In order to fix this problem, no one party has all the answers,” he said.

Andrew Brown was just one the many people of color shot by U.S. police in the past two months

Multiple news agencies are reporting today that radio traffic from Wednesday’s Elizabeth City police shooting of Andrew Brown, Jr. indicates Brown was killed after being shot in the back. This is from WRAL.com:

Radio traffic from Broadcastify.com indicates that Andrew Brown Jr. was shot in the back Wednesday as deputies tried to serve him drug-related search and arrest warrants.

Brown, a 42-year-old Black man from Elizabeth City, had several children and died in the shooting.

In the recorded radio traffic, officers can be heard saying, “We have shots fired. 421 Perry Street. EMS and Fire en route … Law enforcement on scene advising shots fired and need EMS. We’ve got one male 42 years of age … gun shot to the back … we do have a viable pulse at this time.”

Tragically, of course, Brown is just the latest in a long line of adults and children of color that have been fatally shot by U.S. law enforcement officers.

On Wednesday, the ACLU of North Carolina released the following statement that listed 28 of those people :

According to multiple news reports, Andrew Brown was shot and killed by police in Elizabeth City, N.C., as he drove away. The police killing occurred less than 24 hours after Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd.

Yesterday, sixteen-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant was shot and killed by police in Columbus, Ohio. Ms. Bryant was a Black child.

Anthony J. Thompson Jr., 17, was shot and killed by police at his school in Knoxville, Tenn., on April 12, 2021. Mr. Thompson was a Black child.

Daunte Wright, 20, was shot and killed by police in Brooklyn Center, Minn., on April 11, 2021. Mr. Wright was a Black man.

James Alexander, 24, was shot and killed by police during a traffic stop in Logan, Pa., on April 7, 2021. Mr. Alexander was a Black man.

Larry Jenkins, 52, was shot and killed by police in Winter Haven, Fla., on April 17, 2021. Mr. Jenkins was a Black man.

Donovon Lynch, 25, of Virginia Beach, Va., was shot and killed by police on March 26, 2021. Mr. Lynch was a Black man.

Ivan Cuevas, 27, was shot and killed by police in Visalia, Calif., on March 31, 2021. Mr. Cuevas was a Hispanic man.

Michael Leon Hughes, 32, was shot and killed by police in Jacksonville, Fla, on March 30, 2021. Mr. Hughes was a Black man.

Adam Toledo, 13, was shot and killed by police in Chicago, Ill., on March 29, 2021. Adam Toledo was a Hispanic child.

Matthew Blaylock, 38, was shot and killed by police in Los Angeles, Calif., on March 29, 2021. Mr. Blaylock was a Black man.

Krys Ruiz, 26, was shot and killed by police in Lompoc, Calif., on March 28, 2021. Mr. Ruiz was a Hispanic man.

Eduardo Parra, 24, was shot and killed by police in Sylvania Township, Ohio, on March 21, 2021. Mr. Parra was a Hispanic man.

Daryl Jordan, 50, was shot and killed by police in Miami, Fla., on March 18, 2021. Mr. Jordan was a Black man.

David Suarez, 44, was shot and killed by police during a traffic stop in Devils Lake, N.D., on March 17, 2021. Mr. Suarez was a Native American man.

Angel Degollado, 21, was shot and killed by police in Laredo, Texas, on March 14, 2021. Mr. Degollado was a Hispanic man.

David Ordaz, 34, was shot and killed by police in Los Angeles, Calif., on March 14, 2021. Mr. Ordaz was a Hispanic man.

Ryan White Mountain-Soft, 30, was shot and killed by police in McLaughlin, S.D., on March 14, 2021. Mr. Mountain-Soft was a Native American man.

Christopher Ruffin, 28, was shot and killed by police in Palm Bay, Fla., on March 14, 2021. Mr. Ruffin was a Black man.

Nika Holbert, 31, was shot and killed by police in Memphis, Tenn., on March 12, 2021. Ms. Holbert was a Black woman.

Tyrell Wilson, 32, was shot and killed by police in Danville, Calif., on March 11, 2021. Mr. Wilson was a Black man.

Tyshon Jones, 29, was shot and killed by police in Rochester, N.Y., on March 10, 2021. Mr. Jones was a Black man.

Howayne Gayle, 35, was shot and killed by police in Lakeland, Fla., on March 7, 2021. Mr. Gayle was a Black man.

Andrew Teague, 43, was shot and killed by police in Columbus, Ohio, on March 5, 2021. Mr. Teague was a Black man.

Dwight Brown, 41, was shot and killed by police in Abbeville, La., on March 3, 2021. Mr. Brown was a Black man.

Rudy Duvivier, 32, was shot and killed by police in Clay County, Fla., on February 27, 2021. Mr. Duvivier was a Black man.

Juan Hernandez, 33, was shot and killed by police in New Wilmington, Pa., on February 25. Mr. Hernandez was a Hispanic man.

Donald Hairston, 44, was shot and killed by police in Culpepper, Va., on February 25, 2021. Mr. Hairston was a Black man.

The Washington Post reports that at least 984 people have been shot and killed by police in the United States in the past year, averaging 2.7 people per day. Many of the people killed by police are white. However, The Washington Post’s data analysis notes that Black Americans account for “less than 13 percent of the U.S. population, but are killed by police at more than twice the rate of white Americans.”

Should ‘misuse of deadly force’ disqualify a police officer from employment? Graham residents think it does.

An officer guards a Confederate statue outside of Alamance County Historical Courthouse.

Community organizers in Graham have mobilized against the hiring of a police officer recently fired from the Greensboro Police Department for recklessly shooting into an automobile fleeing a crime scene in downtown Greensboro.

Activists are also critical of Officer Douglas A. Strader’s hire because he was involved in a controversial hogtying incident in 2018 that led to the death of Marcus Smith, a black man who was experiencing a mental health crisis.

Strader was one of eight officers involved in the incident. None of them were disciplined because the now-prohibited practice was allowed in 2018. They are, however, defendants in a federal lawsuit filed by Smith’s mother.

“We just don’t think this was a good hire for our community when another community let him go because his actions were a danger to their community,” said Dreama Caldwell, a community organizer with Down Home NC, a nonprofit that  works to empower people in small towns and rural North Carolina.

The City of Graham hired Strader at the rank of Police Officer 1 on March 1. He’d been a corporal in Greensboro before being fired in October 2020. That was a little more than a year after the September 2019 shooting incident that involved three other officers.

Greensboro City Manager David Parrish upheld the firing after Strader appealed the decision. Here’s what Parrish wrote in the dismissal letter dated Oct. 7:

“A single mistake, error or lapse of judgment while using deadly force can have tragic and long-lasting consequences for our community. As a result, we have no tolerance for the misuse of deadly force. For these reasons, I am upholding your dismissal from employment with the Greensboro Police Department.”

In a statement, the Graham Police Department said it “exceeds and complies with all guidelines set forth by the NC Criminal Justice Education and Training Standards Commission” which requires background checks on all applicants seeking law enforcement certification.

“As with all police applicants, Graham Police Department conducted a thorough background into the character and suitability of Officer [Douglas] Strader. Many of the details and results surrounding hiring decisions are protected by North Carolina personnel law and cannot be divulged pursuant to North Carolina G.S. 160A-168.”

Slater’s hire was first reported by the Yes! Weekly, an alternative news magazine that covers Greensboro, in a story titled “Wandering Cops: Triad Sees Impact of Police Accountability of trail, or lack of”.

Policy Watch is documenting racial tension and race relations in Alamance County in a special series titled: The battle for Alamance: A look at the past and present of one of North Carolina’s most divided counties.

Strader’s hire has become a headscratcher for community activists, many of whom wonder why Police Chief Kristi Cole would invite more controversy to a city still reeling from the aftershock of weeks of angry protests last summer over a Confederate statute guarding the courthouse in downtown Graham.

Civil rights activists were pepper sprayed and arrested during the protests, which made national headlines.

The city also made news after former police chief Jeffrey Prichard criticized the Black Lives Matter movement and the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic on the department’s website. Prichard said he thought he was posting the comments to his personal Facebook account.

“This is a Police Department with history, so to hire someone like that just shows there is no interest in repairing that bridge with the community,” Caldwell said.

Community activist Dejuana Bigelow said Cole promised to work to improve race relations after Prichard’s departure.

Hiring someone with Strader’s background to protect and serve the community isn’t the way to rebuild trust, said Bigelow, president of Future Alamance, an grassroots organization pushing for inclusion and equity in Alamance,

“To hire him [Strader] is like a spit in the face,” said Bigelow,. “The Police Department went in a totally different direction than what we had been building to and talking about for our community and for our residents, an inclusive Graham.”

She said the Strader hire is a setback for race relations.

“We’re already working to build one Graham where everyone feels included, and I have had several talks with Kristi (Cole) and several of her officers along the way, and she said she was interested in restoring trust,” Bigelow said. “This hire creates more distrust. It creates more division.”