Editorial by Greensboro News-Record, April 28, 2015.
Pictures don’t lie.
A bystander’s cellphone video of a North Charleston, S.C., police officer’s fatal shooting on April 4 of a black motorist told a deeply disturbing story that might otherwise never have been known.
The footage shows the officer shooting Walter Scott, from behind, five times. The video also reveals, with stunning clarity, that the officer’s account of the incident was an outright deception and it may have captured him planting evidence (he drops an object beside the body of the motorist) to cover his trail.
The initial police report on the incident told a dramatically different story, of shots fired during a struggle for the officer’s Taser and of officers desperately trying to revive the victim with CPR, neither of which was true. Without the footage, that fictional narrative might have remained the official record of what happened.
That’s why a bill in the North Carolina House that would keep most police video from public eyes is so disappointing. Has its sponsor, Republican John Faircloth of High Point, been paying any attention to current events?
The bill would ban most police camera footage from public viewing by making it available only to police and to defendants in criminal cases. Faircloth’s bill concerns police video, not bystander recordings. But the same principle applies: Seeing is believing — and knowing what actually occurred, not what someone said has occurred.
Faircloth, a retired chief of police, proposes in his bill that body camera video would no longer be shielded from the public as a personnel record. This means an officer does not have to consent before a video depicting his or her actions could be made public. Yet, the bill also classifies the video as “record of police investigations,” meaning individual police departments would decide whether and which videos could be released. Evidence of police conduct would be placed … squarely in the hands of the police.
The bill is especially relevant in Greensboro, which has been one of the first police departments in the nation to equip all patrol officers with cameras. But the footage generally has been unavailable to the public, which defeats the primary purpose of having police cameras in the first place: the building of community trust.
Unfortunately, Faircloth has plenty of company. Among 87 police-camera-related bills in 29 state legislatures, reports The New York Times, 15 would restrict public access to footage.
As most panelists noted during a thoughtful local discussion last fall, any law governing police video use should begin with the presumption that the footage — paid for with public money and shot by public employees interacting with the public — is a public record, then add reasonable exceptions. “The dominant interest is the public’s right to know,” Lewis Pitts, a retired civil rights attorney, said during that session. “Citizens cannot hold government — including police — accountable if they don’t know what’s happening.”
The spirit of the police camera initiative in Greensboro was to increase accountability on the part of the police and the public.
If Faircloth’s bill passes as written, that spirit would be lost, and so would much of the people’s faith and good will.