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Friday, March 9, 2018

Why Body-Cam Footage Should Be Public Record, Revisited

Posted by on Fri, Mar 9, 2018 at 8:31 AM

This post is excerpted from the INDY’s morning newsletter, Primer. To read this morning’s edition in full, click here. To get all the day’s local and national headlines and insights delivered straight to your inbox, sign up here.

A week ago, when news broke that a newspaper in Asheville had been leaked body-cam footage showing a white cop beating up a black man stopped for jaywalking, I wrote that this was a case-in-point example of why North Carolina law needs to be changed to make body camera footage public record, which is currently is not. In light of today’s news, I wanted to revisit this subject.
  • From CNN: “A western North Carolina police officer who resigned after a body camera video shows him hitting and using a Taser on a man suspected of jaywalking will face preliminary charges of assault, the Buncombe County District Attorney's Office said Thursday. Senior Police Officer Christopher Hickman, 31, was removed from patrol duty a day after the incident last August and resigned from the Asheville Police Department in January, the same day he was to be terminated, according to a timeline of the case released by the Asheville City Council. On Thursday, a judge issued a warrant for Hickman's arrest on one count each of assault by strangulation, assault inflicting serious injury and communicating threats.”
  • From the N&O: “Asheville’s police chief said she will resign if people want her to, in the aftermath of a leaked body-camera video showing one of her former police officers beating a man who was accused of jaywalking. ‘I am happy to resign if that will solve the problem,’ Chief Tammy Hooper said as hundreds of people expressed their frustration during a Citizen Police Advisory Committee meeting at a local community center Wednesday evening, according to the Asheville Citizen-Times.”

WHAT IT MEANS: The timeline released by the Asheville Police Department undercuts my thesis in one significant way: I had argued that “had this video not gone public, there is a very good chance the Asheville Police Department would have slipped this incident under the rug.” As it turns out, I was wrong. The officer had resigned as of January 5, and had he not done so, he would have been fired anyway. So good for them. But I still think my argument holds: The Asheville City Council only learned about this incident when the newspaper posted the footage. Reforms were only promised after the community was outraged. The police chief only said she would maybe resign after an outcry. And Hickman wasn’t issued an arrest warrant until yesterday—and I find it highly unlikely that would ever have happened had this footage not gone public.
  • Right now, North Carolina essentially requires a court order to access body camera footage, and police officers’ personnel files are confidential. So the public is often left in the dark about whether officers are punished for alleged misdeeds or whether the alleged misdeeds took place. Without transparency, we’re relying on cops to police cops, and history tells us that’s not ideal.

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