Bill would allow release of police body-worn camera vidoes, wouldn't require it

A House Bill filed Tuesday would make clear in the Public Records Act that law enforcement agencies have discretion to release body-worn camera video. Some agencies believe they are prohibited by personnel privacy protections. The law would not require that the videos be released. 

A bill introduced Tuesday in the House – House Bill 713 – would make clear that law enforcement agencies are not prohibited by personnel privacy laws from releasing videos captured by body-worn police cameras. The bill, which proposes amending the Public Records Act’s law enforcement section, would not require that videos be released upon request. 

The question of whether or not police videos are part of an officer’s personnel file that is off-limits to public disclosure first came up when the City of Greensboro adopted a body-worn camera policy that states they are. Greensboro was the first large police department in the state to equip all of its patrol officers with body cameras.  

Greensboro’s interpretation of how the personnel law applies to body cameras has some support from the UNC School of Government, which has led other departments to adopt similar policies to Greensboro. In the past year Greensboro has had two officer-involved shootings caught on body-worn video and in both cases it cited the personnel statute in its decision to withhold the records from public view. 

The bill would give departments, such as Greensboro, the ability to release videos, notwithstanding its interpretation of the personnel statute. It may also give departments discretion to withhold video that does not clearly fall into another exemption – such as the criminal investigation exemption.  

Body-worn cameras are intended to serve two primary purposes. The first is to collect evidence of a crime that occurs in an officer’s presence. The second is to promote accountability and trust between police and the communities they serve. That second purpose is lost if only the police department has discretion to determine whether or not a video should be released. 

How to handle public records requests for police video is a question being raised all across the country. Although the personnel privacy issue is unique to North Carolina, other states are wrestling with whether or not to create new records exemptions for the videos. At least one department in Washington state has said it may discontinue its body camera program because the records requests for the videos were too voluminous. While another Washington police department is directly uploading its videos to YouTube and using redaction software to blur the faces of people who appear in them.