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Our Opinion: Secrecy law forces family to fight for body camera video

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Cartoon by Dave DiFilippo
Cartoon by Dave DiFilippo
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Body-worn cameras were supposed to serve as a silent witness in confrontations between police and civilians and usher in a new era of public confidence in law enforcement through transparency.

As a Thursday hearing in Nash County Superior Court shows, we’re failing on both fronts.

Spectators’ gasps filled the courtroom when Reid Sasser, the State Bureau of Investigation’s assistant special agent-in-charge, testified that only one of at least eight body cameras and dashboard cameras was recording Feb. 9 when Nash deputies shot and killed 28-year-old Johnathan Ramirez, who was accused of wielding a rifle and refusing to relinquish it.

Members of Ramirez’s family and a media coalition of three Raleigh-area television stations had filed petitions for the video’s release, a step required by a 2016 law that exempts police footage from the N.C. Public Records Act. Superior Court Judge Quentin Sumner came down on the side of disclosure. But questions about how the deadly shooting unfolded may remain unanswered.

The three deputies who were involved in the shooting and are on administrative leave while the SBI completes its review — Sgt. John Winstead, Deputy Stan Ricks and Detective Taylor Neal — turned on their body cameras after Ramirez was shot, Sasser testified. Their recordings likely preserved the incident’s aftermath but cannot corroborate Sheriff Keith Stone’s claim that Ramirez was holding a gun.

Sasser said another deputy at the scene had a body camera on during the shooting. As that unnamed deputy wasn’t one of the three involved, the footage it recorded might not paint a conclusive picture. Not a single patrol car dash camera was rolling, Sasser told the court.

In a Feb. 11 press conference, Stone avoided making sweeping pronouncements about whether the shooting was justified, but in stressing the need for people to obey officers’ instructions, he seemed to imply Ramirez left deputies with no choice but to open fire.

That may well be true, but without the tale of the tape, will we ever know for certain?

Following the August 2014 police shooting death of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, law enforcement agencies invested heavily in body camera systems so prosecutors, police commanders and the public could review officers’ interactions with suspects.

Disclosure was always an integral part of the bodycam buying spree. The Ferguson shooting touched off a wave of protests over claims that police often mistreat African-Americans. Law enforcement advocates said these videos would disprove public perceptions of racial bias in policing. Cops wanted the videos shown so civilians would see the danger they face and better understand the split-second decisions they must make.

Dashcam video was routinely released to media outlets and citizens, and agencies differed in their response to public records requests for bodycam footage. Then state lawmakers passed House Bill 972, which made it unlawful to disclose police video without a court order and forced people to petition a judge for access.

Supporters of that law might say the system worked, as Judge Sumner ultimately ordered the video released. Indeed, Sumner made the right call and deserves credit for siding with the public’s right to know. But Ramirez’s grieving relatives had to clear a high hurdle in order to seek answers.

They hired a lawyer to argue their petition, and media outlets WRAL, WNCN and WTVD retained separate counsel. Attorneys seeking disclosure faced opposition from District Attorney Robert Evans’ office and lawyers representing the Nash County Sheriff’s Office.

Deputies work for the public, and the video they record should be public property. Instead, citizens who want to monitor deputies’ work have to pay attorneys to ask permission. As taxpayers, they’re also indirectly picking up the tab for prosecutors and law enforcement agencies to argue against their interests. That’s an outrageous, bizarre and broken system.

Sunday marks the beginning of Sunshine Week, a national initiative to raise awareness of public records and open meetings laws and champion the cause of open government. When it comes to disclosure of police bodycam and dashcam video, North Carolina remains stubbornly in the dark. It’s time to let some sunlight in.

Law enforcement footage should be reclassified as a public record. In cases where releasing the video might compromise an investigation, judges can still order the tapes withheld. Reversing the law’s current presumption of access would better serve the public without jeopardizing officers’ ability to solve cases.

Depictions of public servants doing their jobs shouldn’t be a state secret. We call on the General Assembly to fulfill bodycams’ long-touted promise of transparency by making this footage available to the public.

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