Lawmakers trample on public access

By Andy Winemiller -

I think it’s apparent North Carolina lawmakers would prefer the public know as little as possible about the operations of law enforcement.

North Carolina law already makes it difficult for us (the media) to perform our services as the watchdog of the citizenry, at least when it comes to monitoring law enforcement agencies.

Recently, I made a request for evidence included in an investigation into a young woman’s death to a local law enforcement agency. I got back a worthless report and a note stating the witness statements (which is what I needed) weren’t public record. The case was closed, and no criminal charges had been filed.

I thanked the Elkin Police Department for doing as little as is legally permissible to keep the public informed.

When I called an attorney from the Open Government Coalition, he told me I was S.O.L (simply out of luck). North Carolina has very restrictive policies when it comes to making anything law enforcement does in its daily duties public record.

Therefore, the bill sitting on Gov. Pat McCrory’s desk doesn’t surprise me. It was, of course, passed by wide margins in both the N.C. Senate and House of Representatives. When it’s time to vote in Raleigh, folks can be sure of one thing — representatives from the majority party will fall in line for the vote and offer the party leadership-approved talking points thereafter.

House Bill 972 passed the Senate by a margin of 48-2 and the House by a vote of 88-20.

The bill, if signed by the governor, will render all recordings made by law enforcement officers not available to the public. Body cameras and dash cams will be available only to parties involved in the footage.

That leaves me asking who polices the police. Apparently, the legislature’s answer to that question is the police can simply police themselves. That’s a really bad answer.

Law enforcement officers do an important job. Oftentimes it’s thankless and overlooked. Though I don’t overlook guys and gals who strap a gun to their sides and put their lives in danger for our protection, somebody must check up on them.

They are public employees. Which means our tax dollars write their checks. Just like emails to and from county and city managers, minutes of a meeting and comments at a meeting are public, what a deputy or officer does on duty ought to be public —not some of it. From the time he or she punches the time card and hits the streets, the public should have the ability to check up on them.

I remember stories from city hall where I once lived. Decades ago, officers used to hose off the floors in the city jail. They were cleaning up the blood which stained the jail after a day filled with beatings.

There’s no doubt it has gotten better, but atrocities still happen. If you read my column on a weekly basis, you’ll know I’m not sympathetic to the cases of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin or Freddie Gray, but a body camera or a dash cam are a good means to ensure our officers are always doing the right thing.

There’s no doubt in my mind the occasional bad apple officer does some things he wouldn’t like the public to see, whether it’s shooting a guy on the ground in the back, or being discourteous to a person at a traffic stop. Only those with their heads in the sand would say no officers ever take advantage of their authority.

The footage is also useful in clearing an officer of wrongdoing, as we saw in a recent tragic death of a local man who was hit by a Highway Patrol cruiser. That officer seemed to do nothing wrong once the department let go of the footage. Until then, I was stuck listening to the accounts of eyewitnesses. It was a tragedy spread out over weeks, but we could have put it and any accusations to rest immediately.

If the governor signs HB972 or the General Assembly overrides his veto, you can score one for the bad cop who doesn’t want his or her actions made available to the public.

In fact, the bad cop is the only person this legislation benefits, and I’m anxious to see what talking points leadership in the General Assembly contrive to aid lawmakers in selling this destruction of our access to information to voters.

I would also ask why we are expected to fund the purchase of such cameras if the footage is not available for our review? The bill undermines the entire purpose of body cameras and dash cams.

In the end, the legislation will remove the media’s right to play watchdog, and it will remove our ability as taxpayers to check up on the employees we hire with our hard-earned dollars.

By Andy Winemiller

Andy is a staff writer and may be reached at 415-4698.

Andy is a staff writer and may be reached at 415-4698.

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