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Council runs back door play on video policy

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by Roch Smith Jr.

Activist Lewis Pitts is cautioned by a security guard while speaking to Greensboro City Council this week.

At a Monday afternoon work session, the Greensboro city council passed a resolution that will allow limited release of video captured by the body-worn camera of former police officer Tim Bloch as he fatally shot Chieu Di Thi Vo in March of 2014. The resolution called for release of “portions” of the video with certain stipulations, including that it be made as part of a presentation by the Chief of Police. Multiple investigations cleared Bloch of any wrongdoing.

It remains to be seen how forthcoming the city will be with the video. Also attached to that approval was the adoption of a new policy governing public access to police body camera video. How this policy came to be approved was one of the most underhanded and appalling betrayals of public trust I’ve seen in over 15 years of observing local government.

Uncommon Contempt

To be sure, the kind of contempt council showed for the public in adopting the policy is not unheard of, but it’s memorable because of its rarity. The city’s attempt to stop the publication of a YES! Weekly issue under the rule of former Mayor Robbie Perkins was as repugnant (a judge denied the city’s request as unconstitutional).

What made Monday’s action particularly abhorrent was not just the unscrupulous treachery, but how much it marked a low-water mark for Mayor Nancy Vaughan who had campaigned against Perkins as a champion of transparency and is now abandoning those principals right before our eyes. She had plenty of help though.

Monday’s meeting was originally scheduled to be a work session on the budget. At the last minute, consideration of release of the Vo shooting video was added to the agenda. When the meeting started, the budget discussion was removed from the agenda and the meeting became, ostensibly, only about releasing the Vo shooting video.

Two proposals

Meanwhile, efforts had been underway by council members and the public to craft a policy governing public access to police body camera video. There were two options developing, variations of a proposal crafted by Vaughan and council member Justin Outling (district 3) and a policy written largely by retired civil rights attorney Lewis Pitts.

The two policies differed fundamentally in their approach, most significantly in their presumption of how much access the public should have. The Pitts proposal began with the stipulation that the videos are generally considered to be public records. Exceptions would apply to protect privacy and criminal investigations.

The Vaughan/Outling proposal had no presumption of public access and would have those seeking access navigate a convoluted and often contradictory set of hurdles, including a very arbitrary consideration of “public interest.” (Is it in the public interest to see a person kneed in the face during an arrest? Opinions will differ.)

At the council meetings where these policies were discussed, not a single member of the public spoke in favor of the Vaughan/Outling proposal, but people lined up to speak in favor of the Pitt’s proposal, so much so that it became known as the People’s Proposal. It was clear that the Vaughan/Outling proposal was in danger of being tarnished as unpopular.

Sit down and be quiet

These proposals were being discussed and modified at other council and committee meetings. They were next scheduled for consideration in two weeks.

So it was a surprise when, at Monday’s work session that was supposed to be about the budget, then about the Vo video, that Jamal Fox (district 2) made a motion that the City adopt the latest body camera policy. Nancy Hoffman (district 4) seconded his motion.

And this is where the sickening behavior began. When colleagues questioned what policy Fox and Hoffman were advancing specifically, it turned out to be one that nobody had read, including Fox or Hoffman. City Attorney Tom Carruthers had it on his desk and passed it out to city council. A few leftover copies were distributed to the public, too few to go around.

Council then gave it a quick once-over. As the News & Record wrote, “As if cramming for a pop quiz.”

Citizens who had been working on the policy were shocked. The next time the policy was supposed to come up for discussion was at the May 24 city council meeting. People felt waylaid and tried to ask for some public discussion. I walked to the speakers’ podium and asked the mayor if she would hear public comments on the proposed policy. She said no, there would be no speakers from the floor.

Pitts stood up and tried to convey how wrong it was for council to circumvent the process that was underway and to bring forth a proposal without advance notice and no opportunity for public comment. The mayor told him to stop talking or he would be removed, which prompted a security guard to approach him and take his arm. Pitts promised to be quiet and was “allowed” to stay. There was to be no comment from the “audience,” the mayor said.

The fix was in

Tim Bloch, the officer who shot Vo, was also in attendance.

He stood up and asked if council would like to hear from him. The mayor invited him to the podium and allowed him to speak.

It soon became clear the unpopular Vaughan/Outling policy was going to be railroaded through. As Marikay Abuzuaiter questioned the propriety of proceeding in this manner, Outling, the policy’s prime architect rolled his eyes but could barely hide his enthusiasm at the prospect of cutting off the popular People’s Proposal.

He encouraged his colleagues to take action because, as he put it, they had been discussing it for “a sixth of a year.” It seems that third grade math is supposed to confound us and make two months sound like a really long time. Or something.

That comment was typical of the way Outling has been driving his policy — by dealing with the public in bad faith. He has been fond of telling the media, as he did again on Monday, that such a policy would be the first in the state. Not true. See Charlotte.

He characterized the policy council adopted on Monday as “incorporating” portions of the Pitt policy when, in fact it borrows heavily, word for word for a large portion, from a bill introduced into the state legislature by Representative John Faircloth, a Republican from High Point.

Faircloth’s bill begins by asserting that police body camera videos are not public records, then lists eight criteria that must be considered before they can be released. The Vaughan/Outling policy, and its modification adopted by council on Monday, copies the Faircloth criteria including the troublesome consideration of whether or not disclosure is “necessary to advance a compelling public interest.”

I might consider disclosure of a video that shows Outling kicking a dog in the public interest. He may not. You see the problem.

Not our problem

To make the policy even more onerous and hostile to real transparency, it defines disclosure as meaning the opportunity to view, not to possess or copy. So any opportunity for the media to analyze a video by freeze frame, slow motion or magnification will be denied. There will be no opportunity to post a video to You- Tube for public scrutiny, no opportunity for people to take an image from a video and use it to illustrate an article or social media post, even if they have managed to meet the arbitrary “public interest” standard.

In a final underscore of council’s cowardice, the policy avoids putting any responsibility on themselves. While the People’s Policy would compel city council to vote on an unfavorable decision to release a video, the policy adopted by city council has no such requirement. It puts the decision-making responsibility on officials who are out of reach of accountability through elections: the police chief, the city manager and the appointed police review board.

Council has succeeded in simultaneously making access to these videos arbitrarily difficult and washing their hands of any responsibility. It was brilliant, in a way. A diabolical way that surely would not have happened if it was done aboveboard and without such disgraceful contempt for the opinions of the public. We surely wouldn’t have ended up with this horrible policy if city council, abetted by the shenanigans of the mayor, had not run a back door play to cut the public out of the process. At least now we have a tangible measure of city council members’ beliefs in transparent government. Promises on the campaign trail will no longer suffice.

Roch Smith Jr. is the creator and curator of Greensboro 101. He can be reached at curator@greensboro101.com.

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