Editorial: Let Us Watch the Watchmen
North Carolina’s new legislation that blocks the release of law enforcement recordings from body cameras — with few exceptions — has proved controversial, especially following the recent shooting of Keith Lamont Scott by police in Charlotte.
This law was proposed in the spring — long before the shooting occurred — and it goes into effect on Oct. 1. It allows people to access the videos under certain conditions, but they can only watch the footage. They can’t share it with the public on social media.
The politics of releasing or not releasing the videos are complicated, but recent events in Chicago and Charlotte have shown hiding things just creates more public unrest.
In order to have a stable relationship between communities and the police, the public needs to be able to hold the law enforcement agencies they fund accountable for their actions. This is impossible without transparency and proper communication.
According to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of Press, public records are any material “regardless of the physical form, characteristics or means of transmission, made or received pursuant to law or ordinance or in connection with the transaction of official business by any agency.”
These videos are public information, and the public has the right to see them.
Law enforcement sometimes hesitates to release these videos because of privacy concerns. But if that’s the case, faces can be blurred and voices can be changed.
A more serious concern is that it may affect the outcome of future trials. John DeCarlo, professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven, said the reasons for not releasing video depends on the agency’s priorities.
Technology and social media have certainly had a huge effect on policing. The quick and easy way in which people can share videos of incidents between citizens and the police has increased accountability among law enforcement officials.
Betty Shelby, the Tulsa officer who shot and killed Terence Crutcher, was charged with felony manslaughter. This may not have happened without video evidence documenting the stop.
North Carolina’s legislation is only in the spotlight because of the recent shootings — it’s not the first law of its kind. Twenty states have laws limiting access to bodycam footage, and 12 more are attempting to pass similar laws.
Many communities are limiting the public’s access to police scanners. Boardman recently began communicating on an encrypted channel. Youngstown is considering doing the same.
Officials argue these measures protect law enforcement, but recent protests — including those in Charlotte — show that there is a lack of trust between law enforcement officers and the communities they police. Hiding from the communities will not increase that trust.
Bodycam footage should be public, so it can be viewed by the press and concerned citizens. Laws like North Carolina fly in the face of the idea of the police as public servants.
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