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State Laws Restrict Release Of Police Body Cam Footage


This week North Carolina's governor signed a law that excludes police body cam and dash cam recordings from that state's open records laws. If you were recorded by a police camera there, you may ask the police to view the recording but not copy it. And if the police deny your request, then you have to go to court to get a judge to order them.

Amid all the recent controversy over police stops that were recorded and that ended in shootings, we wondered how the new North Carolina law compares to other state laws. And Nancy La Vigne, director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., has led a study of those very state laws. Welcome to the program.

NANCY LA VIGNE: It's great to be here.

SIEGEL: It sounds like getting to see body cam footage in North Carolina might take jumping through some hoops. Is that a lot more restrictive than other states?

LA VIGNE: Well, it is, but it isn't. I think that a lot of people are alarmed by the fact that North Carolina has said that this footage is not public record because I think what people hear from that is, oh, that means that I don't have access to the footage. But in most states, even when footage is public record, there's a loophole that enables law enforcement to decide whether they want to share in the first place. So it's not really as restrictive to call it not public record.

The other thing I would say is that very few states have been particularly prescriptive in the guidance for how one might acquire access to the footage or at least view the footage. So in some ways this is actually more transparent and helpful to people who want to learn more about how they can acquire and see the footage that they are on.

SIEGEL: If I'm being filmed or recorded by a police officer after, say, a traffic stop, does the officer in most states have to tell me that we're being recorded if in fact we're being recorded?

LA VIGNE: It depends on the state. There's one-party consent states and two-party consent states. And those that have two-party consents do require the law enforcement officer to alert the citizen that they are indeed being recorded.

SIEGEL: You mean the citizen is the second party, and the other...

LA VIGNE: Yes, the second - absolutely right.

SIEGEL: The police officer is the first party...


SIEGEL: ...In the other states. And it just might vary according to state law, what's required.

LA VIGNE: Yes, and that's all something that we researched and have put online on

SIEGEL: There are conflicting claims surrounding recordings from body cams and dash cams. And people might want a recording that shows how things went down. It was their version. The police might want to show it shows their version. Other people might say, I want freedom from my picture being shown in somebody else's video.

LA VIGNE: That's exactly right, and that's why the public records designation is important. If it is a public record, it can be access to Freedom of Information requests and other requests by the media and others who might just want to look at all the footage and arguably engage in a fishing expedition. Well, doing so creates quite a burden for law enforcement because they can't just release that footage. They have to make sure that they're not violating the privacy of citizens who are captured on it.

When you think about it, most everyone is innocent when they're captured on footage. You know, even if they're a perpetrator, they're innocent until proven guilty. But there's also victims. There's witnesses. There's children. And you don't want to violate their privacy by sharing these records.

LA VIGNE: What have you discovered about the efficacy of the use of body cams or dash cams? Does it change encounters between police and citizens or improve them at all?

LA VIGNE: Well the research is pretty nascent, but what we've found so far is that cameras do tend to have what's called a civilizing effect. And what I mean by that is that it tends to make both parties behave a little bit better than they might otherwise - less use of force, fewer citizen complaints. So they are a promising technology.

SIEGEL: Given the state of laws, can one say that body cams bring transparency to police behavior?

LA VIGNE: Oh, they well can. And importantly I think regardless of the state laws, how restrictive they are in terms of access by the public, it's very important that agencies share the footage when there are high-profile incidents, that they release that footage very early on and show that level of transparency that gives the public some level of confidence that they're taking it seriously and they want to treat it in an objective and unbiased manner.

SIEGEL: Nancy La Vigne, thank you very much for talking with us.

LA VIGNE: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

SIEGEL: Nancy La Vigne is director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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