Recordings from cameras worn by North Carolina police officers or attached to their vehicle dashboards and used for criminal investigations would be confidential with some exceptions in legislation getting support at the General Assembly.
The bill that passed the House this week by an overwhelming margin also makes clear a judge may order the release of such videos if requested by someone. The bill doesn’t address whether more police officers should be required to wear body cameras. A separate measure for law enforcement and university experts to study expanding their use is up for debate early next week in a House committee.
The bills have gained interest following recent police shootings of black men nationally, including those in Ferguson, Missouri and North Charleston, South Carolina. Some officers in North Carolina cities already use the cameras.
“We felt like we had to do this now in case we have an incident that might occur,” said Rep. John Faircloth, R-Guilford, a primary sponsor of both bills.“So this bill gives the agency the authority to release those records whether or not the officer objects.”
Law enforcement investigative records already off-limits to the public include laboratory test results, photographs and details gleaned from confidential informants. The bill approved Thursday adds footage from body cameras and dashboard cameras to the list. People seeking a court order to obtain footage must give specific time and date information to help police locate the exact video.
Defense attorneys would be able to review videos, Faircloth said, which also wouldn’t need the consent of the police officer featured in the footage to be released. Such footage also could be made public if prosecutors play it at trial.
The family of Jesus Huerta, the 17-year-old who police said killed himself while custody, spoke out Friday against the bill.
Durham police said Huerta shot and killed himself while handcuffed in the backseat of a police car.
The camera inside the police vehicle was not record at the time of the incident, Durham police said.
“To me, I think it’s very hard to for anyone in the situation to have someone in police custody and not be able to see what happened,” Huerta’s older sister Evelin said.
She believes police camera recordings should be public.
“What are they hiding? What are they trying to hide?” she asked.
The records bill is supported by the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police. Allen Rogers, a Fayetteville attorney who represents families of people of killed by law enforcement, said he’s been denied police videos from those incidents.
The bill “is a huge improvement in leveling the playing field and affording access and transparency for those who have an interest in the unedited particulars of a citizen and police encounter,” Rogers said Thursday.
The public records bill passed 115-2 and now goes to the state Senate.
There are many issues that must be resolved over cameras recording the actions of police, advocates say, including when the cameras should be activated, protecting the privacy of citizens in footage, and how long police must store the footage.
“We need to move forward” on the issue, Faircloth said, “but we need to do it in a very measured and intelligent way.”
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. WNCN’s Phil Sanchez contributed to this report.