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Community calls for release of police camera footage

A coalition of community members march in downtown Greensboro on Tuesday, April 19, to support making police body camera footage public record.  Photo by Charles Edgerton/Carolina Peacemaker A coalition of community members march in downtown Greensboro on Tuesday, April 19, to support making police body camera footage public record. Photo by Charles Edgerton/Carolina Peacemaker

Greensboro residents are demanding more transparency from the police department. A small group of 15 people gathered in front of Greensboro Police Department headquarters Tuesday, April 19 to demand that the city council and police department officials support releasing police body camera footage to the public.

The group later migrated to the front of the Melvin Municipal Building to continue the demonstration they called “Truthful Tuesday.”

According to the Greensboro Police Department (GPD), it deploys about 240 body worn cameras daily. However, GPD officials and city council refuse to allow public access to this footage, citing concerns such as personnel issues.

Supporters of releasing the camera footage assert that it is public record and by law, public records can be accessed by public.

“We’re going to do this every week and if the Lord allows it, we will speak at every council meeting,” said Rev. Nelson Johnson of Beloved Community Center. “There’s not going to be any change until the people take a stand.”

Johnson is part of a Greensboro coalition working to promote transparency within the police department and improve police-community relations through public forums, community building and a citizen-led complaint review process.

A grant from the Greensboro Police Foundation equipped the unit with body worn cameras in 2013.

“Everyone was told it was for tranparency,” said retired Greensboro civil rights attorney, Lewis Pitts. “They have been withholding the footage and our city elected leaders haven’t been following what the people want.”

Pitts and other supporters cite the Scales brothers’ case and the fatal, officer-involved shooting of 47-year-old Chieu-di Thi Vo in Greensboro in March 2014 as support that body camera footage must be public record and be available to the public for review.

Pitts said the General Assembly is passing legislation to take away power from the cities to obtain and review footage. “Our city council has the legal authority to release body cam footage,” said Pitts. “I want to call on the council and chief of police to take action on this issue before the state does.”

District 3 city council member Justin Outling and Mayor Nancy Vaughan collaborated on a draft policy that allows video to be released, if (1) you are in the video or (2) the city council votes to release video to the public if the body believes it is necessary to restore community confidence.

Outling and Vaughan’s draft policy also protects situations involving criminal investigations. Outling said the public records law does apply to body worn camera video.

“I think you can make a reasonable argument in court that certain body-worn camera footage is not personnel record. But I don’t think it’s defensible legally to say that, as a manner of law, that no body worn camera footage is personnel record,” said Outling.

There are two proposals on the table for council members to review: One that provides a limited release and the second proposal provides a broader release or as broad as legally allowed for release of footage to people who are not in the video.

While the city proposal considers transparency as the exception, rather than the rule, Pitts proposes the rule is that all footage be public access, and then adds reasonable exceptions such as when it interferes with a criminal investigation, violates privacy of anyone in the video, and/or jeopardizes the prosecution of the fair trial of a defendant.

“We need to take a stand like Charlotte did and be known for standing up for what is right and good,” said Pitts.

Currently, there is no state legislation that dictates if and how the footage should be released to the public. However, state law does consider police body worn camera footage as protected material. Therefore, any policy passed by the City of Greensboro would have to be approved by a state judge before it could become law.

Rep. John Faircloth, District 61, (R-Guilford) has written a draft bill that states police chiefs or sheriffs can release footage upon request, using six defining factors. Their decision to withhold footage can be appealed in Superior Court. The bill also would stop camera footage from being a personnel record unless deemed so by the agency for whom the officer works, and gives individual police agencies the authority to decide whether footage will be released, in whole or in part.

The Truthful Tuesday protestors say authority to decide such matters should not be in the hands of law enforcement. City council curently has the authority to release video, authority which may be in jeopardy by current proposed state legislation.

Greensboro Police Chief Wayne Scott has said that he supports the release of body-worn camera footage, but with certain limitations.

“It’s important to us that we have as much transparency as possible, we believe that it’s helpful if our community understands what we do every day, or day in and day out operations and the body cams will help bring clarity to that,” Scott said.

The city council will revisit the issue at its May 3 meeting.

“I think it’s important we act timely and quickly and provide public disclosure on this matter. Our community deserves to have resolution on this important issue,” said Outling.