NC Bill Demands Family Access To Bodycam Footage In 5 Days
Family members of a person killed by North Carolina law enforcement would be able to watch unedited officer body camera footage of what happened within about a week, according to a bill approved Monday by a state Senate committee.
The language, added to a broader criminal justice reform measure expected to clear the Senate later this week, responds to efforts by the family of Andrew Brown Jr. to view bodycam footage of the Black man's death in Elizabeth City.
Brown was fatally shot in his car by Pasquotank County sheriff’s deputies last month and his family has spent the past few weeks in a legal battle to see the videos.
Under current law, it's at the discretion of a sheriff's office or police department to let an immediate family member of the person who is the subject of the footage or the family’s attorney to watch the video privately. If disappointed with what the law enforcement agency provides, the family can ask a judge to force the agency to let it review more footage.
Initially, in Brown's case, the sheriff allowed his family members to view a 20-second clip from a single body camera. A judge later ruled that the family could watch less than 20 minutes of the nearly two hours of video that was recorded. Family members will get that chance on Tuesday.
The bill directs a law enforcement agency to let the family view the unredacted recordings within five business days of its request unless the agency asks the court if some footage can be edited or withheld. A judge may review the footage privately in deciding whether disclosing all of it would harm a person's reputation or cause a serious threat to carrying out justice. The process also would apply to a person who was seriously injured and wants to see the footage.
Sen. Danny Britt, a Robeson County Republican and the bill sponsor, said the alteration stemmed from discussions with members of the General Assembly's Legislative Black Caucus. He said the changes still provides a balance between the investigation and the needs of family members to see what transpired. The district attorney's office would be allowed to weigh in before a judge rules.
“I think that if that was my loved one or if that was myself, I would want to see exactly what happened,” Britt said after the judiciary committee meeting. “However, I also believe there may be compelling reasons for that law enforcement agency to restrict what I see and what my family sees.”
Sen. Toby Fitch, a Wilson County Democrat and former judge who is Black, praised the change: “Most of all, the family needs to know, and this does exactly that.”
The provision doesn’t address the process by which the media or an individual must ask a judge to order footage be released publicly. In a move to make it less likely that the footage could be secretly recorded by someone and made public, the bill makes it a misdemeanor if anyone copies the recording unlawfully and a low-grade felony if someone makes it public.
The law currently lacks a real punishment if the video is secretly recorded and distributed, Britt said: “A law enforcement agency is probably going to be more likely to show that unredacted version if there’s some sort of repercussion." The current body camera law was approved in 2016.
The bill, which also focuses on targeting insubordinate and overly aggressive officers while giving more mental health assistance to police and deputies, still must receive House approval. The House has passed several measures with many elements contained in the omnibus Senate legislation, but they don't now include the body camera proposal.