Debate continues over North Carolina body camera law

D.A. Ben David says he hopes district attorneys, judges, and other criminal justice officials are included to ensure the integrity of the judicial process.
Updated: Apr. 28, 2021 at 10:19 PM EDT
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NEW HANOVER COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - After a Pasquotank county judge ruled that body camera video of Andrew Brown’s fatal encounter with Sheriff’s deputies will not be released to the public, Governor Roy Cooper voiced his support for changing the law surrounding the availability of law enforcement video.

“I have continued to support a change in the law that would presume that these kinds of videos are public record and that a court would have to come in and find reason not to have them released to the public,” said Cooper Wednesday during a press briefing.

[NC’s body camera law is back in the spotlight following Elizabeth City shooting]

Under state statute 132-1.4, only a superior court judge can release body camera video to the public. Law enforcement may show the video to people who appear in the footage in question or family members and attorneys for a person in the video of they are deceased.

“Law-enforcement recordings are not public record. District attorneys are not in power to release them to the press, only a superior court judge can do that. And that’s what the Superior Court judge listened to today,” said Ben David, District Attorney for New Hanover and Pender Counties.

While Cooper says he supports making police video a matter of public record, other lawmakers, like State Senator Danny Earl Britt, say otherwise.

“I disagree with that premise,” said Britt. “Almost anything that you’re seeking to get access to through the courts, the parties seeking to get access to it is the one that has the burden of showing the necessity to get it.”

Senate Bill 510 was introduced earlier this month and, if passed and signed into law, would make law enforcement video availalbe upon request two days after an incident.

Since the law is not passed yet, however, David says it is important to maintain transparency in the judicial process and to ensure a fair trial for everybody involved.

“You get that transparency when you’re in a courtroom presenting evidence,” said David. “If you don’t get into a courtroom, because, for instance, you don’t take out charges, then it’s important to give as much information as possible to the community so they can visibly balance what happened.”

David says that as new laws like this one are discussed, he hopes district attorneys, judges, and other criminal justice officials are included to ensure the integrity of the judicial process.

Britt says this is why videos like the one showing Brown’s encounter with police should remain private until a possible trial, because he believes releasing information to the public could make jury selection difficult and, possibly, lead to a mistrial.

“There’s good rationale for why those matters should remain private until they revealed and why they shouldn’t be public even though it’s on a taxpayer-paid-for device,” said Britt.

As body camera technology evolves, David says the need for transparency is, arguable, greater than ever before. He wants there to be trust between law enforcement and the citizens they serve, especially as there is a “heightened sensitivity” to incidents caught on camera.

“The press moves much quicker than the wheels of justice grind, and so that’s frequently the tension you see in this case,” said David.

While the Senate bill sits in committee, David says, no matter what, there should be a balance between the public’s right to information and a potential defendant’s right to a fair trial.

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