North Carolina’s homophobic Republican Governor Pat McCrory just signed into law an act making police body camera video an official state secret. Naturally, following the events of last week, civil rights and transparency advocates are in an uproar. His Democratic opponent in this year’s gubernatorial race, Roy Cooper, slammed the move as a blatant overreach of state authority and of plotting to keep the public in the dark. North Carolina’s Attorney General believes that the new law goes way too far in restricting access to police videos for citizens, who are after all the taxpayers and pay for not only the salaries of police but to create these videos in the first place, telling ABC:
Gubernatorial candidate and NC Attorney General Roy Cooper told ABC11 the law is “too restrictive and goes too far in preventing access by the public. The law should be improved to provide for more openness when the legislature comes back into session.”
“At a time when people across the country are calling for greater transparency and accountability from law enforcement agencies and officers, Governor McCrory’s bill to keep police body camera footage hidden from the public moves us in the wrong direction,” said NC Democratic Party Chair Patsy Keever.
Yes, Roy Cooper is also North Carolina’s Attorney General right now, and if elected, he and the Democratic party will have a steep climb in their efforts fix a legislature obsessed with injecting an intrusive, big government into people’s private lives. Democrats will also have to resolve litigation with the federal government the state is sure to lose, plus restore the heavy damage done to the state’s business climate. Luckily, Roy Cooper has out-raised the despised incumbent Republican Governor by 50% to date.
In the wake of this police state secrets law, North Carolina police and lawmakers will have to contend with more disenfranchised, angry citizens, who’ve been abused by police and will now be unable to obtain the public records their own tax money paid to create. When police – who taxpayers fund to enforce laws- deprive victims or their loved ones of their civil rights or even their lives, instead of videos leading to civil litigation, this can only lead to more desperate street protests and less legitimacy for all officers across the Tar Heel state. Legendary science fiction author Robert A. Heinlen best described the problems caused by government keeping too many secrets from the society who asks it to govern:
Secrecy is the keystone to all tyranny. Not force, but secrecy and censorship. When any government or church for that matter, undertakes to say to its subjects, “This you may not read, this you must not know,” the end result is tyranny and oppression, no matter how holy the motives.
Thanks to Republican Governor McCrory, North Carolina residents will be subject to what could amount to extortion by local police departments, who can keep video secret from those accused in criminal trials, keep police videos secret pending expensive litigation most citizens can’t afford, and during that time victims of police brutality can be further discouraged from pursuing their complaints, or worn down by the attrition and high cost of pursuing legal claims. Also, police in North Carolina will now be handed control over what video is released and are allowed to suppress anything showing police in a truthful, but undesirable light. How many poor criminal defendants will plea to crimes they didn’t commit because it’s impossible for their public defenders to gain access to police footage?
Republican Governor McCrory’s heinous suppression of public records will disenfranchise the vast majority of citizens who live at subsistence level, and especially the 17.2% of North Carolina’s roughly 10 million residents who live in poverty as of 2015. That’s 1.75 million citizens who probably have zero chance to view a police video, which in most states they’d be entitled to copy and release if it showed an officer harming them, or use to file a lawsuit.
This kind of secret policing is sure to whip up conflict between citizens and government because the entire reason for transparency in government is to quell the kind of anger that arrives from disenfranchisement. Keeping these videos secret will undermine trust between the police and the people who pay their salaries. Not only that, but North Carolina’s new secret police video law also established a “Blue Alert System” for police to call the police when they feel threatened, as if being the police and having police radios or calling 911 like the rest of us isn’t enough!
The only effective public means in the United States of trying to keep our police accountable to the public, and to collect meaningful evidence of law breaking by citizens is video and audio recording devices. America’s police carry microphones, dash cameras and body cameras to record their interactions with citizens, and in most states public records laws are interpreted in favor of releasing videos to the public with as little delay as is determined to maintain any criminal defendant’s right to a fair trial. Some states like Florida favor immediate release, or nearly immediate distribution of these vital public record videos made by police, and all other states – excepting North Carolina now – allow for copying of the video. Under North Carolina’s new secret police video law, a video will only be shown to the person in the video, and if that viewing is denied, the only recourse is hiring a lawyer to sue in court. It would let police departments make boiler plate denials based upon “concerns about safety, reputation or an ongoing investigation” in most cases. North Carolina residents would not even be allowed to have a copy of the videos either.
Grant Stern is the Executive Editor of Occupy Democrats and published author. His new Meet the Candidates 2020 book series is distributed by Simon and Schuster. He's also mortgage broker, community activist and radio personality in Miami, Florida., as well as the producer of the Dworkin Report podcast. Grant is also an occasional contributor to Raw Story, Alternet, and the DC Report, and a senior advisor to the Democratic Coalition