Two weeks after Raleigh police officer D.C. Twiddy shot and killed Akiel Denkins in southeast Raleigh, the city council voted to purchase six hundred body cameras and put them on the street over the next three years.
They're still working through the details; local activist Akiba Byrd, of the Police Accountability Community Taskforce, says that he has met with police chief Cassandra Deck-Brown, deputy police chief Joseph Perry, and city manager Ruffin Hall, and says that PACT should have an official response from the city by the end of the month. "We're in a holding pattern," he says.
Raleigh isn't the only city in a holding pattern: Durham has been considering body cameras since last year but has been mired in a debate over who should be allowed to view the recordings. In March, the Durham City Council "indefinitely" delayed a vote on ordering body cameras.
But, as they are wont to do, state legislators shoved their way into the debate at the end of this year's legislative session: with big majorities, the House and Senate passed a law that gave local departments complete control over who even gets to see the footage; if people on the tape are denied access or law enforcement fails to respond within three days to their request, they have to obtain a court order to see it. Moreover, the law mandates that, no matter who wants to release the video—even if it's law enforcement—the person or department has to first obtain a court order.
Asked if the Raleigh Police Department would make body camera footage accessible to the public, spokesman Jim Sughrue said the RPD would follow the new law, "which prescribes criteria for case-by-case-reviews."
Opponents say that this is a significant step backward for police accountability in North Carolina—and it's not just activists saying so. Some police chiefs have started to speak out against the law. "I think that police departments and law enforcement agencies need to find every way possible to demonstrate the work going on every day," Fayetteville chief Harold Medlock told The Charlotte Observer. "There is no better way to do that than through body camera footage that the public can see."
In the absence of a coherent and transparent policy, however, pro-reform groups think they've found a short-term solution: for community members to take matters into their own hands, literally, by pulling out their cell phones and filming interactions with the police.
In May 2015, the ACLU of North Carolina rolled out "Mobile Justice," a free smartphone app that assists people who are witnessing an interaction between the police and someone in the community. "It allows you to record interactions with the police, upload that footage so we can review it, and lets you share your location so people can know there's a recording happening in the area where you are," ACLU policy counsel Susanna Birdsong says.
The ACLU says that, so far, the app has over twenty-five thousand downloads in North Carolina. (Chapters in seventeen states and Washington, D.C., have their own version.) "Even though [the body camera bill] is now law, they can't take away the public's right to film police interactions," Birdsong says.
"We definitely need to get that message out that people should never cede their right to film the police, regardless of the legislation or if their localities have body cameras," says Byrd.
In the wake of the deaths of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota, the role of cell phones and citizen-shot video footage in interactions between the police and public has cropped up again. Bystanders filmed Sterling's shooting by Baton Rouge police officers, and—in a surreal event—Castile's girlfriend live-streamed the aftermath of his shooting by a St. Anthony, Minnesota, police officer on Facebook.
Complicating matters, though, is the perception that filming or posting a video could result in retaliation. Chris LeDay, the thirty-four-year old Air Force veteran who posted the video of Sterling's death online, was arrested in Georgia for an unpaid traffic ticket, something he told Mother Jones was retaliation for helping the footage go viral. Likewise, Ramsey Orta, the Staten Island man who filmed Eric Garner's death in 2014, has said he's been harassed ever since. (In July, Orta began serving a four-year sentence on weapons and drug charges.)
That, activists say, could be why Raleigh sees relatively few citizen complaints against officers. "We have a problem with people fearing targeting, intimidation, and coercion when it comes to documenting and reporting the police," Byrd says.
Sughrue told the INDY that an average of thirty-five citizen complaints a year were made in Raleigh between 2011 and 2014. In addition to that, the Internal Affairs Unit investigated ninety-seven complaints filed internally during that period. Overall, Sughrue says, 36 percent of those complaints were classified as "sustained," meaning Internal Affairs found evidence of wrongdoing.
"Both the department and its officers know that our interactions with the public may very well be recorded and don't have any objections to that," Sughrue says. "... The only thing we ask is that those doing videotaping maintain a safe distance and to please comply if an officer asks them to move back."
But for all of the help that cell phone videos can provide, documentation isn't the only prescription needed to fix the relationship between police and the working class and people of color.
"We gotta bring down these walls on both sides," Byrd says. "If an area is eighty percent African-American, Latino, or poor, that needs to be reflected in the police patrolling that area. We need to monitor stops, the training police are equipped with, and how they're implementing their training, holding them accountable. And we need an independent review board with subpoena power. It's not this piece or that piece, it's all of it."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Film the Cops!"