by Jeff Sykes

Expert panel considers police video and public access

| @jeffreysykes

How to strike a balance between transparency and privacy was the topic of debate among a panel of legal experts who brought the national focus on police surveillance and public access to Greensboro this week.

One nationally recognized legal expert said the topic of body-worn police cameras, their regulation and access to their recordings, was being debated by more than half of the state legislatures in the country.

Police in Greensboro began wearing body cameras more than a year ago, according to City Attorney Tom Carruthers, who moderated the panel discussion Tuesday morning in city council chambers.

The clear consensus is that the technology has outpaced local and state policy. Because of video’s ability to provide unbiased evidence of policecitizen interaction, many feel that existing public records exemptions should be rethought and provide greater public access to police videos. Others feel that broad privacy concerns, both for the public and the officers on patrol, trump the public’s interest in transparency.

Police body camera video is already being used in district court to resolve certain cases, especially drunken driving charges, according to Jan Pritchett, a trial lawyer based in Greensboro.

Pritchett said that he would favor the videos being made available to litigants in a dispute, but that he had concerns about blanket public access, which, he said, could violate the privacy rights of innocent people.

Two civil liberties experts on the panel agreed that the privacy issues were important, but noted that public confidence, transparency and accountability were the points being used to request funding for the body cameras by police agencies across the country.

Christopher Brook, the legal director for the ACLU of North Carolina, said the overarching purpose “” to document what happens between police and the public “” should be the “north star to guide policy.”

“If the video is inaccessible completely by the public … then its utility is diminished and degraded,” Brook said.

Some agencies are developing policies with broad public access provisions built in. The town of Carrboro in Orange County has adopted a more accessible policy toward police video, Brook said. The town has been working with the ACLU of NC to develop its policy regarding dash cam video but is still working on its body-worn camera policy.

Scott Greenwood, a constitutional rights attorney based in Cincinnati, Ohio, said he is working with authorities in Albuquerque, N.M., to develop their policy, which views the video as a presumptive public record when it is created.

The policy in Greensboro views the video as exempt from public records law “” meaning the public will not have access to the file “” if the video is part of a criminal investigation or was captured during an incident that becomes part of a complaint of officer misconduct. Broad exemptions for personnel matters and criminal investigations are built in to North Carolina’s public records law, a circumstance that often prevents officials from releasing video footage even if it shows an officer acted correctly.

Brook said that the ACLU finds public agencies hiding behind blanket exemptions far too often, even when the group submits narrow records requests. The ACLU is attempting to compile records of how law enforcement agencies react to certain situations, or what their policy is on the use of special response teams. Brook said they routinely receive zero documents as a response to the request, with agencies citing the criminal investigation or criminal intelligence exemptions in the state’s public records law.

“That experience should give everyone pause and make everyone appreciate that if we don’t define these terms and update our laws based on technological advances that we can’t expect everyone to be governed by the letter, let alone, the spirit, of the law,” Brook said.

Greenwood agreed, saying that such empty responses to public records request undermines public trust and accountability.

“That’s clearly not the right answer,” he said. “You really want to make sure the criminal investigation exemption doesn’t swallow everything that occurs in the field. If it does, the public trust is compromised.”

Brook pointed out that public support for funding of body cameras could dry up if the technology is perceived as a tool of surveillances as opposed to a tool of accountability.

Frayda Bluestein, associate dean of the UNC School of Government, said the complexity of the issue “” with competing accoutability versus privacy interests “” made crafting policy difficult. With the advances of video technology and storage capacity advancing quickly, she hinted that specific modifications to existing public records law could be in order.

“The question is if there is a reason to treat these videotapes, this data, as its own separate set of rules?” Bluestein said. “That may be unique among other kinds of personnel or law enforcement records such that there should be a separate set of rules to address and balance these needs.”

Greenwood lauded the city for forwarding the discussion in light of the national mood. He said Greensboro had a chance to become a leader in advancing policy discussions about public access to police videos.

“This is a storied community in the Civil Rights Movement, because of that long history it is really important to build trust and accountability in the community,” Greenwood said. !