Dashcam, bodycam law is bad for all involved

As reported by “Mount Airy News” staff writer Terri Flagg (page 1A), today is the last day bodycam and dashcam footage from law enforcement officials will be considered public record in North Carolina. After Oct. 1, such footage will only be released by court order.

Given that so much of what the General Assembly has done in recent years is having to be redone — either by court order or by public pressure pushing legislators to amend or undo poor legislation — we are cautiously hopeful the state’s legislators will revisit this issue.

Dashcam and bodycam footage absolutely should be considered public record.

Such video footage can have many uses. Internally, law enforcement agencies can use such footage for training purposes. The video can be used to corroborate, or disqualify, various testimonies given in court proceedings, particularly useful when those verbal accounts are in conflict. And, that video can be used to show the public when officers have acted honorably and responsibly, even when they are being accused of wrong-doing. That is a double-edge sword, of course, because such video will likewise show when an officer is acting irresponsibly or illegally, but we would think this would help such agencies root out the bad officers, as they often say they wish to do.

Locally, we’ve seen the effectiveness of such video.

A Lambsburg, Va., was killed on Nov. 21 on I-74 near the N.C. 89 exit when he was struck by a North Carolina Highway Patrol vehicle driven by Trooper D.H. Holt while the man was attempting to cross the road.

In the hours and days after the incident, a number of conflicting accounts emerged. Supposed eye-witnesses said the trooper’s car was traveling at an excessive speed, perhaps without any lights on — not even headlights. Even the Highway Patrol gave conflicting accounts — saying there was a second patrol car involved, then saying there wasn’t.

Ultimately, “The Mount Airy News” secured dashcam footage, with the editorial staff reviewing several minutes of footage leading up to and including the collision with the pedestrian. The trooper was not driving at an excessive speed, had all appropriate lights on, and there was no second patrol car. The footage showed that, while the incident was an awful tragedy, there was absolutely nothing Trooper Holt could have done. She did nothing wrong, and the story rightfully went away.

That’s not to suggest all questions would be answered with ready access to police video. Some actions on there will be inconclusive, only showing part of an encounter or incident.

But we suspect most of the time video footage of action by law enforcement officers will show the same thing — officers doing their jobs, doing them well, with no wrongdoing.

Without that video footage, however, there will always be doubt, crackpot witnesses who claim to have seen this or that will be given credence simply because the evidence that could prove them wrong (the video footage) will be hidden from public view, further fracturing public trust in law enforcement.

We have a hard time understanding how this is right, or even smart.

Hopefully, the General Assembly will revisit this issue in 2017, and put the good of the public first in repealing this law.