Local leaders differ on new NC body cam law requiring court order to release footage

A new body camera law goes into effect in North Carolina on October 1, 2016 (Photo credit: Sinclair Broadcast Group)

BUNCOMBE COUNTY, N.C. -- Buncombe county Chief District Court Judge Calvin Hill has closely followed the Charlotte body cam story, with the Charlotte police chief’s initial refusal to release body and dash cam video of Keith Scott's shooting death by police.

North Carolina’s new body camera law now gives the sole discretion to a superior court judge, to rule if footage should be publicly released.

Judge Hill feels the law is a constructive one.

“Somebody has to be the neutral person to make that decision,” said Judge Hill. “And it should be a judge.”

Hill is a district judge and so will not be in line to potentially review local video cases. But he feels justice will move swiftly in highly charged or highly publicized cases where body cam footage is at issue. Hill said attorneys can advocate for victim's families.

“A lawyer on their behalf has some control over the speed with which that case comes before a judge,” he said.

But Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer sees serious potential problems with the law, as does the ACLU.

“The new law which will require a court order before local governments can release body cam footage or dash cam footage creates a pretty big barrier,” said Manheimer. She said it will delay transparency.

“It doesn’t allow for any discretion for the police chief or even the district attorney to release that footage if they feel it's needed,” she said.

Mannheim also questions what would happen if a police chief and a mayor were ever at odds over whether footage should be released.

She said that hypothetically a city attorney would represent the public’s interest to get footage released. But she questions if that would force a police department to then hire and pay for outside counsel to represent their position in a potential body cam footage case where a chief did not want footage released.

Mannheimer said she is also concerned if a judge takes a conservative position on the release of footage and denies its release to the public. She questioned what would happen then, and if the case would languish in court proceedings.

State representative Josh Dobson, who lives in McDowell County, said taxpayer money, funds body camera equipment for many departments across the state. He said the new law dovetails with the funding.

He said he voted for the new law because he felt there needed to be a clear, consistent procedure for release of body camera footage.

“There needed to be a mechanism in place to gain access to those cameras,” said Rep. Dobson.

“Videos are not providing the clarity we hoped they would,” said Carl Mumpower, a well-known conservative voice in Asheville. He feels a judge will be impartial.

“Somebody filming from this angle doesn’t see the gun, someone from this angle does, and so people go looking for what they want and it takes us to bad places,” he said.

Despite controversy and damning proof of police misconduct body cam footage has revealed in some cases, Rep. Dobson said the public should remember one important point about police.

“The overwhelming majority of the time, our law enforcement are acting in good faith and putting themselves on the line for us.”

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