Opinion: Transparency Redefined
North Carolina pulls the shroud over police video
The stated rationale for House Bill 972, which Governor Pat McCrory signed into law Monday, is to protect the public from embarrassment. “There are private things that could be very embarrassing to people, could be hurtful to people,” N.C. Rep. John Faircloth of High Point, the bill’s sponsor, said last month. “And that doesn't need to be public.” He was referring, he said at the time, to civilians in domestic incidents whose intimate moments might be captured by police body cameras.
I hate to point out the obvious, but there’s another group of people who, especially after last week, might suffer embarrassment or shame or perhaps even indictment over the contents of police video.
“Body cameras should be a tool to make law enforcement more transparent and accountable to the communities they serve, but this shameful law will make it nearly impossible to achieve those goals,” said Susanna Birdsong, an attorney for the ACLU of North Carolina. Under the new law, the public can see footage from body and dashboard cameras only under court order. People whose images or voices or both are captured in footage have to submit written requests to the law enforcement agencies in question. The police chief or sheriff has to approve the request. Even then, the person can view—not copy, just watch—only the “relevant” portion of the video, relevance to be determined by the agency.
If anything has changed the way law enforcement engages with the public in the last quarter-century or so, it’s video evidence—not just introduced in court but available to the public, allowing entire communities to see the results of an encounter. Without it, particularly in the current misinformation age, conspiracy theories flourish, and the actions of both police and civilians remain in the dark.
Obscuring of the facts helped turn the Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown killings into Rorschachs, open to interpretation; clear video in the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile helped everyone understand what had happened. (I know, the video evidence everyone saw wasn’t shot by police. But you can’t count on witnesses filming every encounter.) That kind of evidence doesn’t just reveal bad police work. It illuminates good police work, serving as a hedge against false claims of police brutality. There’s literally no downside.
Which makes McCrory’s justification even more absurd. “This legislation fulfills our commitment to protect our law enforcement and gain public trust by promoting uniformity, clarity and transparency,” he said. The man has a real gift for getting it 180 degrees wrong, although he did let a hint of the truth out at another point: “My goal is to protect those who protect us.” Protect them from whom? From what? From us?
Update: Worth pointing this out—the new law is a bipartisan endeavor. It passed the Senate 48-2, with one Democrat (Jeff Jackson of Charlotte) and one Republican voting no. In the House, it passed 88-20 (58-13 Republicans, 30-7 Democrats).