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Our view: Police video law leads to mistrust

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The tortuous slow drip of police video footage in the fatal police shooting of Andrew Brown Jr. in Elizabeth City has confounded national media, which have struggled to explain this state’s convoluted police video law to the rest of the country.

Welcome to North Carolina.

And if it’s any consolation to our visitors, we don’t get it either.

As counter as the law is to the spirit of trust, open government and accountability, that’s how we roll here. And it needs to end.

A judge on Wednesday denied requests to release body camera video in the case of a Black man who was shot to death by North Carolina deputies as they tried to arrest him on drug-related warrants.

Consider how, only a day earlier, the city of Columbus, Ohio, handled a similar situation very differently.

Following a fatal police shooting of a Black 16-year-old girl, authorities released body-camera footage of the incident within hours. In Elizabeth City, it will be a matter of weeks.

A Superior Court judge ruled Wednesday that the police footage will not be made public, as both media outlets and the Pasquotank Sheriff’s Office had requested, for at least another 30 days.

Judge Jeffery Foster did, however, rule that Brown’s family will be allowed to view five videos of the incident within 10 days.

As of now, Brown’s family has been able, privately, to view only 20 seconds of footage.

While we wait, wildly conflicting accounts of what happened to Brown are swirling and tensions are rising in the small, majority-Black city in the northeast corner of the state.

Did Brown, a Black man, “make contact” with deputies with his car, as the district attorney suggests? Or was Brown seated at the steering wheel when the shots rang out and tried to move his car only after the deputies advanced and started shooting, as one of the Brown family’s lawyers attests?

The state’s police video law, passed in 2016, requires a judge’s order for its release to the public, which never made sense.

And its primary sponsor is Rep. John Faircloth, a High Point Republican and former police chief.

Time and again the law has bred confusion and frustration as the public tries to sort out what happened in high-profile incidents of police shootings or other uses of force.

And how it is applied can vary wildly from one instance to the next.

In March 2020, following a request by the police chief in Raleigh, a judge released footage of a nonfatal police shooting two days after the incident. But in June 2020, when media requested the release of body-camera footage following the death of a Greensboro man, John Neville, in the Forsyth County Jail, the case wasn’t heard until July — and the videos weren’t released until one week later.

There are many such examples.

The case of Brown, a Black man who was shot while in his car by deputies as they attempted to serve warrants, is disturbing enough in itself.

The lack of access to the deputies’ body-camera footage only heightens tension and increases the space for rumors and misinformation.

What lawmakers also seem not to realize is that police video often justifies an officer’s actions.

After the shooting of Ma’Khia Bryant in Columbus, early accounts had swirled that the youth was shot by a white officer after she had dropped a knife she was holding.

But police footage showed Ma’Khia swinging the knife at a second female, who appears to be pinned against a car, before the officer fired.

The video was released so quickly “because the public deserves to know what happens,” Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther said. “They needed to have this footage ... to have this information, to have this transparency, to have this power, given to the community. So, it’s no longer about an officer’s word versus a resident’s word or different neighbors’ takes on things, but we have this footage. And we know that having this footage increases accountability on both sides of a camera.”

Bills sponsored by Democrats in the N.C. General Assembly would add consistency to the state’s police video policy, requiring that footage be released within 48 hours of a request. The legislation also would allow the agency that possesses the video to request a delay.

As we see it, these bills would turn right-side-up what is upside-down under the current law. Police video is a public record and, as such, should be made available to the public. That’s where the law should begin.

Then any requests for exceptions should go before a judge.

The public’s right to know comes first. And until the backward logic of Faircloth’s bill is fixed, we will remain stuck in an endless loop of delay and mistrust.

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