New NC law prevents public from viewing police bodycam footage

© Jim Young
Police bodycam and dashcam footage is now off limits to the public in North Carolina unless a court order is obtained. Governor Pat McCrory signed a law restricting access to the footage “to gain public trust while respecting the rights of public safety officers.”

North Carolina House Bill 972, signed into law Monday, prevents citizens from viewing footage from police bodycams or cruiser dashcams unless law enforcement authorities choose to let them or a judge orders it. When a request to police footage is denied, the petitioner would have to obtain an order from North Carolina’s superior court see it.

“[The law] seeks to gain public trust while respecting the rights of public safety officers,” Governor McCrory’s office said in a statement, adding that the law also establishes a “Blue Alert,” which acts as an “AMBER alert” for cops, alerting the public via smartphone about suspects who have harmed or killed police officers.

Dashcam footage had previously been considered a part of the public record, and until Monday, the status of bodycam footage was never touched by any state statutes. Police departments, however, tend to treat bodycam footage as part of an officer’s personnel file, which is generally off limits to the public.

The new law mandates that bodycam footage should not be considered part of personnel files.

“If you hold a piece of film for a long period of time, you completely lose the trust of individuals,” the governor said, according to the Associated Press.

On the other hand, McCrory added that “if you immediately release a video, sometimes it distorts the entire picture, which is extremely unfair to our law enforcement officials.”

The North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union released a statement criticizing the new law, arguing that it will only serve to decrease police transparency.

“Body cameras should be a tool to make law enforcement more transparent and accountable to the communities they serve, but this shameful law will make it nearly impossible to achieve those goals,” said Susanna Birdsong, Policy Counsel for the ACLU of North Carolina. “People who are filmed by police body cameras should not have to spend time and money to go to court in order to see that footage. These barriers are significant and we expect them to drastically reduce any potential this technology had to make law enforcement more accountable to community members.”

The bill was signed into law following the high-profile police-involved killings of two black men, which were caught on cell phone camera last week: Alton Sterling on Tuesday in Louisiana and Philandro Castile on Wednesday in Minnesota.

In the Sterling incident, bodycams were dislodged from officers as they wrestled with the suspect. It is not clear if the footage that was recorded with the devices will be usable.

Perhaps even more relevant to the law’s passage is the killing on Thursday of five Dallas police officers and the wounding of seven more by an African-American sniper. The officers were on duty at a Black Lives Matter demonstration.

The new North Carolina law is set to go into effect on October 1.