Missing a chance to send a message at a time of national crisis

Missing a chance to send a message at a time of national crisis

Governor McCrory signs HB 972. (Photo: Governor’s Press Office.)

Governor McCrory swings and misses on the police violence issue

The phenomenon of brutality and misconduct by law enforcement officers toward average Americans (especially young African-American men) is, of course, nothing new in the United States. For a tragically high percentage of people of color, regular confrontations with police are a regular and often terrifying fact of life. In some large American cities, there are so many cases of police misconduct that some lawyers devote their entire practices to representing victims or defending police. And needless to say, the phenomenon of law officers being targeted by criminals goes back to the beginning of civilization.

In recent years, however, two developments – one negative and one positive – have elevated these issues significantly.

On the negative side is the explosive national growth in dangerous weapons. As Raleigh’s News & Observer editorialized this past weekend:

“Guns are so pervasive in the United States that police rightly fear that any traffic stop or street encounter could involve a confrontation with someone armed. That fear can literally trigger overreactions.

In Dallas, the police were outgunned by a military veteran with an assault rifle. On videos of the incident, the assailant’s rifle booms with staccato firings. It sounds like video from a war-torn city in the Middle East. But it is a great American city with bullets ripping through the ranks of police who were protecting the right to protest, a brutal confrontation between the First Amendment and the Second.”

There is much that needs to be done in this country to combat the reign of terror brought on by the pervasive presence of ever-more-advanced killing machines. And while there are flickers of hope that we are making incremental progress, it will, under the best of circumstances, take decades of determined work to change hearts, minds and laws.

Documenting the crisis

A much more positive and hopeful recent development (at least when it comes to advancing public awareness of the crisis in police-minority relations) and one that is much more likely to lend itself to solutions, is the rapid advancement in mobile camera technology. As multiple news reports and commentaries have noted of late, nothing has done more to make the general public aware of the horrific reality of police abuse in recent years than the existence of viral videos documenting it. Chicago Tribune columnist Ted Slowik put it this way the other day:

“Social media videos are significantly changing how we view and process major events. More specifically, I think the recent introduction of live video feeds on Facebook is a game-changer as historically important as television coverage during the Vietnam War.

In its analysis ‘Vietnam on Television,’ the Chicago-based Museum of Broadcast Communications cites a 1968 broadcast by Walter Cronkite on CBS as a turning point. Cronkite wrapped up a report about the Tet Offensive by expressing his view that the war was unwinnable, and that the United States would have to find a way out:

‘Some of Lyndon Johnson’s aides have recalled that the president watched the broadcast and declared that he knew at that moment he would have to change course. A month later Johnson declined to run for reelection and announced that he was seeking a way out of the war; David Halberstam has written that “it was the first time in American history a war had been declared over by an anchorman.”’

The difference is, now everyone with a cell phone and a Facebook account can be like that anchorman. Everyone is capable of capturing dramatic images that hold tremendous power to influence public opinion.”

In other words, as horrific as the images often are, there is simply no denying (or hiding from) them.

Implications for North Carolina

The situation in North Carolina is very much the same as it is throughout the country. More and more in every corner of the state, average citizens are “arming” themselves with cell phone cameras that they are using to document their interactions (and those they happen to witness) with law enforcement.

As hopeful and potentially powerful as this development is, however, what would really make the situation a whole lot safer and better would be a pair of simple state laws requiring law enforcement officers to make use of body and dashboard cameras and making the footage they record available as public records in most circumstances.

Unfortunately, yesterday’s action by Governor McCrory to approve new legislation from the General Assembly that will keep camera footage secret was a huge step in the wrong direction. In a statement, the Governor claimed the bill promotes “clarity and transparency,” but that appears to be, at best, a gross overstatement.

As the ACLU of North Carolina (which had urged a veto) noted in a statement after the Governor’s action:

“North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory today signed into law HB 972, which allows law enforcement agencies to keep officer worn body camera footage from the public unless ordered to release the footage by a court.

‘Body cameras should be a tool to make law enforcement more transparent and accountable to the communities they serve, but this shameful law will make it nearly impossible to achieve those goals,’ said Susanna Birdsong, Policy Counsel for the ACLU of North Carolina. ‘People who are filmed by police body cameras should not have to spend time and money to go to court in order to see that footage. These barriers are significant and we expect them to drastically reduce any potential this technology had to make law enforcement more accountable to community members.’

Under the new law, body camera and dash camera footage are not public record. Law enforcement agencies have the discretion to release footage to people who are recorded, but if the agency denies a request to disclose the footage, the recorded individual must bring a claim in court to attempt to obtain the footage. There is no mechanism for law enforcement to release videos of public interest to the general public other than through a court order.”

Once again, faced with an opportunity to set a powerful example on a high profile issue of national importance, Governor McCrory opted for the backward-looking stance favored by those who are resisting change. [As an aside, the fact that the legislation in question also included a positive and long overdue provision to allow local governments to institute needle exchange programs to combat the spread of HIV ought not to excuse the Governor’s action in approving the new body camera law.]

Going forward

The silver lining in all of this is that, despite the Governor’s disappointing action, technology continues to advance rapidly – a fact that may diminish the importance of police body cameras to some extent. As the ACLU also noted in yesterday’s statement:

“The ACLU of North Carolina has a free smartphone app, Mobile Justice NC, that empowers users to record encounters with police and send the footage to the ACLU of North Carolina for review. It is available on iPhones and Androids. More information is at www.acluofnc.org/app.

‘We will continue to stand up for the most vulnerable in our communities and ask any person who has trouble obtaining or viewing body cam footage recorded by police to contact us,’ Birdsong said.”

For the foreseeable future, though, North Carolina law enforcement agencies will remain much less a part of the solution to the problem than they might have been. Rather than truly helping to expand public awareness and providing an obvious and powerful incentive for law enforcement officers to avoid abusive actions, state law will continue to cede this important function to citizens brave enough to do the job themselves.

Fortunately, however, as with so many other issues in which state leaders have tried to hold back progress, they are swimming against a powerful tide. One can only hope that any damage that results from the state’s obstructionism will be minimal.