Police dash cameras and similar law enforcement tools like body cameras have long been seen as a way to both increase accountability on the police force in a community and protect the hardworking men and women of the law at the same time. However, with this comes a natural question – if the footage being recorded by those dash cameras is inaccessible to the public, are they really accomplishing anything of value at all? The answer to this question is a controversial one and also one that is currently being played out in North Carolina.
In July of 2016, the North Carolina governor Pat McCrory signed a bill that makes that footage completely inaccessible to the general public, regardless of the circumstances. This is one decision that has been met with a certain (and understandable) level of outcry.
The North Carolina Situation
The bill signed into law by Governor McCrory makes police dash camera footage completely inaccessible to ALL members of the general public, including people who may have been recorded by the camera itself during something like a traffic stop. This is problematic, as part of the reason these dash cameras exist in the first place is to give citizens a tool to prove police misbehavior when and where it occurs.
When the bill was initially proposed, it was met with significant public outcry. Not only were there protests across the state, but a petition was also launched that was ultimately signed by more than 3,000 people. The law, officially called House Bill 972, marched on anyway – passing in the state senate with a vote of 48 to 2 in favor. At that point, McCrory signing the bill into law was little more than a formality.
Perhaps the most controversial part of the law is that the police officers themselves are fully in charge of when and where that footage can now be seen – or if it is ever released at all. For a technology that was designed in part to increase visibility and accountability, House Bill 972 seems to have reversed those efforts for the foreseeable future.
The reason this decision was so controversial has less to do with anything happening in North Carolina and more to do with what’s going on in today’s world. Part of the reason why the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were so widely reported was because they were incidents that were caught on camera through similar types of recording technology. Without having access to the footage being recorded, there is almost little point in the dash cameras, body cameras and other recording devices being used at all – at least as far as the general public is concerned.
Again, it is important to note that for people who are recorded on these dash cameras, there IS still a way to obtain that footage – the police just have to sign off on it. Law enforcement agencies will reportedly weigh a number of different factors when making this decision, including whether or not someone may be harmed either physically or in terms of their reputation if the footage is released, or if the ongoing confidentiality of the footage is necessary for current and ongoing police investigations.
In the End
The actions of law enforcement professionals across the country are important, to be sure – but they also come with their fair share of controversy, especially in today’s modern climate. Dash camera technology provides an additional layer of accountability in a process that is typically kept at arm’s length from the public at large, though North Carolina has taken steps to extend that natural distance even further. One thing is for sure: if police dash cameras began life as a technology under constant scrutinize, laws like the one recently signed by North Carolina’s governor aren’t going to do much to change that fact anytime soon. It remains to be seen if similar laws will slowly roll out in other areas of the country in the not-too-distant future.