After days of mounting public and media pressure, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department this weekend released body- and dash-cam footage of the fatal police shooting of Keith Scott.
But this may be the last time such a video surfaces from a police department.
North Carolina is one of a dozen other states, along with the District of Columbia, that have taken steps over the past two years to restrict access to dashboard and body camera police footage in a major overhaul of public records law, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP).
“The vast majority of those laws have restricted public access to police video, either by adding additional exemptions in state public records laws or they’ve created a presumption that the videos are not public records at all, except in certain circumstances,” Adam Marshall, an attorney at the RCFP, told USA Today Sunday.
In North Carolina, a new law— signed by Governor Pat McCrory in July and taking effect Saturday—will increase restrictions on public access to police body camera videos, making future efforts to gain the release of those tapes a lot more difficult.
The new legislation stipulates that police videos are not public records. Therefore, anyone featured in the video will be able to make a written request to see it, but a court order will have to be obtained (including by the chief of police) for the footage to be released to the public
Laws in Florida, Georgia, Minnesota, Illinois, New Hampshire, Oregon and South Carolina also exclude body-worn camera footage from open record requests, but provide several exceptions. In Minnesota, for instance, a recent bill exempts the release of body-camera footage to the public if an officer in it “causes someone substantial bodily harm.”
These measures come as the use of body cameras is spreading in police departments across the country, raising questions about who should have the right to see the videos and when.
Supporters of the law argue that video evidence from surveillance and body cameras presents some serious caveats as they do not always tell the whole story, and can precipitate public outrage before law enforcement action and due process occurs.
Critics, on the other hand, like the American Civil Liberties Union, believe video footage is crucial to providing evidence of what happened on the scene of a police shooting — especially when there are conflicting accounts between police and civilians. They describe the law as “disgraceful.”
In the case of Keith Scott, police claim he was armed and ignored officers’ orders to drop his gun after he got out of his vehicle. But his family disputes that version of events, claiming Scott did not have a gun on him.
After releasing the dash cam footage on Saturday, Chief Kerr Putney of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department said in a press conference that while the videos showed no “absolute, definitive visual evidence” that Scott had a gun in his hand, and that police had recovered a gun from the scene that bore Scott’s DNA.
Two independent investigations are still ongoing.