Commentary, News

WSJ Editorial: Legislation shielding police footage from public a “deplorable decision”

The Winston Salem Journal is joining the  American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of North Carolina in urging Gov. Pat McCrory to veto House Bill 972. The legislation titled Law Enforcement Recordings/No Public Record would bar police dash-cam video and body camera footage from being made public, unless of course there is a  court order.

The editorial board explains:

pvcam-120B-331x219As Journal editorial page editor John Railey wrote recently about House Bill 972, “Over the last several years, law-enforcement agencies nationwide have paid out billions of taxpayer dollars for cameras for their officers to wear on their bodies or carry on the dashboards of their cars to record interactions with the public and, it was hoped, promptly provide an objective record when questionable incidents erupt. Now, in a perversion of the principle behind spending all that taxpayer money, some law-enforcement leaders want to severely restrict the public’s right to footage made by those cameras. In our state, House Bill 972, making its way through the legislature, says that police chiefs and sheriffs could only release such footage to people whose images are recorded on it, and even those people could be denied. Everyone else, including the press, would have to appeal to judges for such footage. This is public record. But the bill says it’s not …

“Body-cam footage, when released, has often proved invaluable in getting at the truth in cases nationwide of suspects injured or killed while in police custody … Now that the technology is here, it’s frustrating that its products face the threat of being withheld. … As techies make advances that could make our criminal-justice system more fair, some law-enforcement leaders would keep us in the bad old days when they decide what their employers — we taxpayers — can see and what we can’t.”

We believe that the vast majority of Winston-Salem police and Forsyth deputies are good officers. We know they do a crucial and dangerous job for modest pay. We know that their default position is privacy, for various reasons. But privacy is never a good stance for people paid by taxpayers. And, as we saw with a Winston-Salem case, body-cam footage can vindicate good officers.

In December, a local man died in the custody of Winston-Salem police. Body-cam footage revealed the officers did nothing wrong. Yet it took several months, while the officers were the subject of countless rumors, for officials to finally release the footage. It took that long for the release of video that was helpful to police.

It’s only harder to access footage that’s detrimental to police. Now, we the public won’t see hardly any of it. We’re paying for footage we’ll never see, footage that belongs to us.

Gov. Pat McCrory should stand up to the legislature and veto this bill.

Read the full editorial on HB 972 here. Read the ACLU’s take on the bill here.

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