North Carolina passed a law on Monday that makes footage from police dashboard cameras and body cameras exempt from the public record.
The law — House Bill 972 — does allow people seen or heard in any police video, along with their representatives, to access it by filing a request. But requests can be denied if an investigation is ongoing, or to protect someone’s safety or reputation.
“We’ve learned if you immediately release a video, sometimes it distorts the entire picture, which is extremely unfair to our law enforcement officials,” Governor Pat McCrory told the Associated Press.
Police practices have come under national scrutiny recently following the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Body cameras have frequently been suggested as a method for holding police officers accountable for their actions — though expert opinions and research don’t offer a clear answer to whether that’s the case.
At least five other states also have laws that exempt body camera recordings from public records requests, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Tod Burke, a former police officer and professor of criminal justice at Radford University, believes the law may reduce the intended impact of taking video in the first place.
“[The law] really does remove the transparency and the perception of accountability that law enforcement is hoping to portray to the public,” he told Business Insider. “The overwhelming disadvantage is that it gives the perception that you have something to hide, something to cover up, when you very well may not.”
Burke did say note that if footage is released immediately after an incident, the public could make dangerous assumptions about the incident before it is properly investigated.
“If [body cameras are] involved in a case and then video gets out to the public, what happens is it’s being tried by the public, not by the court,” Burke said.
Body camera footage rarely leads to convictions of police officers, according Philip Stinson, a Bowling Green State University criminologist who compiled national statistics on police shootings.
Law enforcement agencies record around 1,000 fatal police shootings every year, according to Stinson, and on average, fewer than five of those shootings result in charges or convictions.
The law has already seen some backlash. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) made a statement condemning what it saw as an unfair obstacle to fair access to police videos.
“People who are filmed by police body cameras should not have to spend time and money to go to court in order to see that footage, said Susanna Birdsong, Policy Counsel for the ACLU. “These barriers are significant and we expect them to drastically reduce any potential this technology had to make law enforcement more accountable to community members.”
North Carolina law still allows people to film their interactions with the police. The presence of citizen videos without corresponding police videos made easily available could be an advantage for the public, Burke said, because it allows them to control the initial narrative.
Burke also speculated that the law, which goes into effect October 1, may have been passed at an inopportune time, as debates over police brutality and racism are at a particularly charged point.
“It might jeopardize the relationship between law enforcement and the community, which is already strained.”
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