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We, the people, call for police video to be public now

By Lewis Pitts / April 18, 2016

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People want equal protection under the law. We do not want to hinder criminal investigations or violate legitimate privacy interests of anyone. The decision regarding withholding or redacting police video should not be made by the police or their supervisors. It should be made by a two-thirds vote of city council, which is directly responsible to the voters.

 

Lewis Pitts

Lewis Pitts

Around the nation, personally owned cell phones and police video cameras have not only captured police misconduct on tape for all to see but the video footage has also exposed the lying of police officers, District Attorneys, and elected officials to cover up police violence.

In 2013 the Greensboro Police Department (GPD) began deploying about 240 body worn cameras daily. We were lead to believe back then that the police footage would be available to the public to insure accountability and trust. But the GPD and city council refuse to allow public access to this footage. This policy of secrecy is unlawful. It leaves the police to police themselves and undermines the most basic principle in a self-governing democracy: accountability to the people.

Now is the time to change this policy of secrecy. The mechanisms for doing so are already in place at this moment. The General Assembly in Raleigh does not have to grant Greensboro Council or residents power or amend any laws.

The Fundamental Principles Are Open Government and Accountability

The N.C. Constitution states: “All political power is vested in and derived from the people; all government of right originates from the people, is founded upon their will, and is instituted solely for the good of the whole.” As the source of “all political power,” the people should insist that their city council enact an ordinance making police videos available to the public.

Police video tapes are public records and thus should be labeled as “public records” from their creation. The State “Public Records Act” (NCGS 132-1) defines “public records” as: “… all documents, papers, letters, maps, books, photographs, films, sound recordings, magnetic or other tapes, electronic data-processing records, artifacts, or other documentary material, regardless of physical form or characteristics, made or received pursuant to law or ordinance in connection with the transaction of public business by any agency of NC government or its subdivision…The public records and public information compiled by the agencies of NC government or its subdivisions are the property of the people.”

The N.C. Supreme Court emphasized the principle of “open government” in 1992 by writing: “The legislature’s mandate for open government supports our holding. By enacting the Public Records Act, the legislature intended to provide that, as a general rule, the public would have liberal access to public records…Good public policy is said to require liberality in the right to examine public records. While some degree of confidentiality is necessary for government to operate effectively, the general rule in the American political system must be that the affairs of government be subject to public scrutiny.”

Currently police and city attorneys wrongly interpret the law and assert that police footage must be kept secret. But there is no law or judicial decision that directly addresses whether police body camera video should be public or kept secret. Therefore, police video “as a general rule,” (see N.C. Supreme Court quote above) should be labeled from its inception as a public record and thus available for public scrutiny. City Council has the responsibility to end the practice of hiding police video footage by labeling it all as “personnel records” or “criminal investigation or intelligence records” and thus secret.

As in most cases, a general rule needs exceptions. Release to the public should be subject to reasonable limitations and/or redactions for legitimate purposes. Any new Ordinance should end the presumption of secrecy by labeling videos as “public records” from inception and releasable to the public – but also contain a mechanism for the GPD to argue to city council before release that all or portions of a specific video should be withheld for legitimate reasons. The areas possibly justifying restrictions on release are privacy interests of persons appearing in the video, fair trial rights, and criminal or intelligence investigations.

There is no “right” of an individual police officer, who voluntarily accepts city employment, to claim “personnel file” confidentiality of his/her video. One individual employee’s desire to keep secret video taken by him/her while “in connection with the transaction of public business” should never outweigh the public right to open government.

People want equal protection under the law. We do not want to hinder criminal investigations or violate legitimate privacy interests of anyone. The decision regarding withholding or redacting police video should not be made by the police or their supervisors. It should be made by a two-thirds vote of city council, which is directly responsible to the voters.




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