Police records not public recordBy Yasmine Regester / January 20, 2017
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Several dozen Greensboro residents marched to City Council offices on Wednesday morning to participate in a “People’s Document Search” at the Melvin Municipal Building.
The group included members of a “Document Search Team” who were arrested by police for trespassing as they requested that the city release the investigative files for the June 27 incident between Dejuan Yourse and former GPD Officer Travis Cole.The group made good on their Dec. 13 promise to return to city offices for a people’s document search if council did not release the files by January 11. GSO Operation Transparency member C.J. Brinson read the group’s statement that they would be invoking NC GS 160A-168 NC to obtain the body cam footage of the incident.
“Council members have completely sidestepped the questions we’ve been asking,” said Brinson. “The department has nothing to lose but everything to gain by proving that a just process was conducted.”
The group also referred to District 1 City Council member Sharon Hightower, who was given access to the files, but was only allowed to briefly view them in city offices. The group insists that the city and council are trying to hide details of the case from the public.
City Manager Jim Westmoreland addressed the group at the City Hall executive offices. He said council’s decision not to release the full investigative file in the Yourse case still stands.
Council released video footage to the public on September 26, well before a state law on police body camera footage went into effect, which now prohibits council from releasing such video. NC House Bill 972 , co-sponsored by state Sen. John Faircloth (Republican, District 61), is a six page bill that was signed into law by former N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory on July 11. The law states that law enforcement agencies have the discretion to release footage to people who are recorded. If the agency denies a request to disclose the footage, the recorded individual must bring a claim in court in an attempt to obtain the footage.
Faircloth spoke about HB 972 at the League of Women Voters of the Piedmont Triad luncheon on Tuesday, stating that the bill protects the people and the police. It is his belief that had the bill been in effect, it would have been beneficial for the Cole-Yourse case.
“Because the public has access to their own cameras, there are images being taken out there. There are statewide guidelines for this process that everybody has to go through,” said Faircloth.
He noted that the initial reason for the purchase of the cameras was to protect officers and help them recall the details of an arrest.
“I wish I had that back then,” said Faircloth, who is a retired former chief of the High Point Police Department.Opponents to HB 972 such as Lewis Pitts, a retired Greensboro civil rights attorney, argue that the law takes the power away from the city’s elected representatives. While Greensboro City Council and other municipalities had ordinances in place that gave council the power to request footage be made public in the interest of public trust, HB 972 stamps that out completely, shifting the power to the police chief and a judge.
Pitts noted that just requesting to see footage is not a definite yes. The process can take months or longer.
“You can file an appeal if the police chief says no. But there will be at least three people — the city manager, the police chief and the city attorney — talking against allowing you to view the footage, saying it’s about the safety of the police department,” said Pitts.
In North Carolina, police officers are not required by state law to have body worn cameras. That decision is left up to the individual law enforcement agencies, as well as rules for operating the equipment. HB 972 only covers the use of the camera footage. Law enforcement officials say that it is expensive to store the numerous hours of camera footage.
“It’s not un-American to ask to see those images. It’s our constitutional right to question or scrutinize. We’ve become starkly aware of how poor people of color are treated by law enforcement. We as White folks are just starting to see it because of the increase of personal camera use, but this isn’t new for the Black community,” said Pitts.
The incident with Yourse was Cole’s second offense within the last two years. Cole’s previous incident from August 2014 resulted in the city paying a $50,000 settlement to brothers Devin and Rufus Scales, who filed a citizen complaint against Cole for excessive use of force and false charges.
When asked why the state legislature felt this bill was necessary, Faircloth explained that local governments are creatures of the state and the state can take power over local governments.
“Sometimes it’s right, sometimes it’s wrong, but that’s our democracy,” said Faircloth, who also stated he was open to hearing amendments to the bill.