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NC Police Reforms Approved After Body Cam Alteration Removed

police lights
Peter Griffin
/ /public domain

A wide-ranging criminal justice measure focused on weeding out problem law enforcement officers in North Carolina and giving mental health aid to others cleared a House committee on Wednesday.

The measure received broad support only after the deletion of newly crafted language that racial justice advocates argued could make it harder for victims' family members to secure access to certain police body camera footage.

Civil rights groups and Democrats on the committee had criticized those changes to what was included in the measure when the Senate approved the legislation unanimously two months ago. A bill sponsor said alterations occurred recently after additional meetings with the North Carolina Sheriffs' Association and other law enforcement groups.

The proposed body camera language “does not have consensus support and is harmful,” Daniel Bowes, policy and advocacy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, told a House judiciary panel.

Adjustments to body camera rules surfaced after the April shooting death of Andrew Brown Jr. in Elizabeth City by Pasquotank County sheriff's deputies. It took some time and a judge's order before Brown's family could watch significant amounts of video that show how Brown died.

A wide array of groups across the political spectrum have backed the broader legislation, which emerged after a year of national focus on racial inequity and police shootings of Black residents, including the May 2020 murder of George Floyd while held by Minneapolis police.

After conversations with Black state senators and others this spring, the Senate added language that would tell a law enforcement agency it must let the family or a victim view the unredacted recordings of a death or serious bodily injury within five business days of their request. But the agency still could ask a judge before that happened to let it edit or withhold footage.

Current law gives law enforcement discretion to refuse the request of the family, which could then go to a judge to seek that decision be overturned. Critics say that forces a family member to go to court — and likely hire an expensive attorney — to find out what happened to their loved one.

But the House version reworked the procedure. The police department or sheriff's office would have been required to petition a court within five days of the request. Then the judge would hear from all sides and alone decide how much footage, if any, would be accessible to the family.

Eddie Caldwell, the N.C. Sheriffs' Association executive vice president, said his group was told it was critical in the negotiations to remove the requirement that family members must petition the court. The latest language fulfilled that, he said.

The language in the Senate bill would have had “a law enforcement agency head in the position of making a judgment call that should be made by a neutral and detached judge,” Caldwell said.

Dawn Blagrove, head of the racial justice advocacy group Emancipate NC, said the language in the House version actually would make situations worse in communities where police shootings occur because it would lead to delays in disclosure by requiring court intervention.

“It takes a monumental step backwards for transparency in law enforcement and for victims and family," Blagrove said in urging committee members to vote against the entire bill should the House language remain. But the committee ultimately decided to take those provisions out before voting for the measure, which now heads to another panel.

Body camera footage alterations could reappear in final negotiations for what appears otherwise as a bipartisan criminal justice reform measure.

Other approved portions would create a public database to determine whether an officer's certification has been suspended or revoked. The state also would create a database accessible by law enforcement that contains “critical incident information” about when an officer has been involved in a case resulting in death or serious injury.

Police officers would have a duty to report a colleague’s excessive force to superiors, and officers would receive psychological screenings and mental health strategies.

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