After a loud, lengthy discussion at its Tuesday, August 16 meeting, the Greensboro City Council voted to continue the police body-worn camera video program by signing a five-year contract with TASER International Inc. for data storage at a cost of about $2 million.
The vote was 7 to 2, with Councilmembers Jamal Fox and Sharon Hightower voting against the motion.
Most of the cost will be paid with federal forfeiture funds – money that comes from cash and property confiscated from drug dealers. It is turned over to the federal government and about 80 percent comes back to the local law enforcement agencies. The money can be used for most police expenses other than paying employees.
As a condition of the contract, TASER International will provide the body-worn cameras to the city and provide the city with two equipment upgrades during the five-year period.
A number of speakers led by Rev. Nelson Johnson of the Beloved Community Center objected to the city entering into a new contract with TASER International to provide enough body-worn cameras for each police officer under the rank of captain to have his or her own camera.
Deputy Chief James Hinson said that having each officer with a camera assigned to would allow police officers to use the body-worn cameras not only while they were on duty but when they were working off-duty jobs in uniform, which would be required.
The objections by Johnson and company were to the restrictions placed on the release of body-worn camera videos by House Bill 972, which was passed by the General Assembly and signed into law in June. The law becomes effective Oct. 1.
The objections proved that this is not about body-worn camera videos but simply a political issue providing liberals another opportunity to object to the actions of the state government, which is now controlled by Republicans.
HB972 is restrictive on what videos can be released, but it is more open than the policy that it replaced. The Greensboro police have had body worn cameras since 2013, and in that time exactly one video has been released to the public.
Before HB972, the City Legal Department had determined that the body-worn camera videos were a part of an officer’s personnel file and could not be viewed by the public unless the police officer involved agreed to allow it to be released or the City Council ruled that it had to be released to maintain public confidence.
Even the Greensboro City Council didn’t have the right to see the video without permission from the city manager, and could only release it if it was determined to be necessary to maintain public confidence.
That is what the City Council did in the case of the video of the police shooting of Chieu Di Thi Vo. But it was a long, complicated process, and in the Vo case former officer Tim Bloch agreed to allow the City Council to see the video. Then the City Council voted to release the video to the public.
Under HB972 there will be a process by which anyone can petition the court to see a video, the people who are in the video are presumed to have the right to see the video they are in, and the police chief can grant them access to the video at his or her own discretion. If the police chief denies a person in a video the opportunity to see it, that person can then appeal to the court.
But anyone has the right to ask the Superior Court for release of a video – a right that was not available under the old city policy or even the new policy that the City Council passed this summer.
HB972, sponsored by High Point Rep. John Faircloth, a former High Point city councilmember and High Point police chief, is not the ideal process – something Faircloth will freely admit. But the new law provides an openness that has not been available for the past three years.
These protestors have not been coming to meetings to protest the fact that until May no one other than criminals had been allowed to see any of the videos.
The previous policy of the city was that if a person was in a police body-cam video and was charged with a crime they had the right to see the video. If they were charged with a misdemeanor then they could view the video but couldn’t get a copy. If they were charged with a felony they could view the video and get a copy.
It made no sense that those charged with crimes had more rights than those who were not charged with a crime, but that is how the law was being interpreted.
The City Council in June passed an ordinance that opened the door slightly for those in a police body-cam video to see it, which is currently in effect in Greensboro and will be until Oct. 1, when the state law as defined by HB972 goes into effect.
So far neither Johnson nor any of his minions have tested the current city policy to see if they can get access to a body-worn camera video under the current city policy other than in the Vo case.
Those who Johnson lined up to speak against buying more body-worn cameras said it was because the videos have been made “unavailable to the public.” But HB972 actually makes the videos more available than the city policy that declared them all personnel records, or the slightly modified position outlined in the Greensboro ordinance now in effect.
Some attorneys said they believed that the interpretation that body-worn camera footage was part of an officer’s personnel record would have never held up to a court challenge. But in three years it was never challenged in court.
Greensboro Police Capt. Joel Cranford and Hinson explained to the City Council that the body-worn camera video contract was expiring at the end of the month, and if the contract with TASER International were not approved, the police officers would lose access to body-cam video footage at the end of the month.
It seems Fox wants to continue everything, as if decisions in the future are going to be easier. Fox was told that continuing the vote on the contract would end the body-worn camera program, but Fox made a motion to continue the item to the next agenda. The motion failed with Fox and Hightower voting in favor.
Fox said, “I don’t think we should hide camera footage.” But for three years while Fox has been on the City Council, he has done nothing to make body-worn camera videos available to the public with a policy in place more restrictive than HB972.
Fox also wanted the City Council to pass a resolution opposing HB972, which has passed and is now law, so the resolution would accomplish little.
Mayor Nancy Vaughan noted that with the legislature adjourned for the year, there wasn’t even anywhere to send such a resolution and nothing could be done until the legislature goes back into session in January.
Fox’s motion for a resolution failed with Councilmembers Fox, Hightower and Yvonne Johnson voting in favor.
Councilmember Mike Barber noted that the city was setting up a meeting with Faircloth to discuss what could be done when the legislature is in session next year to make body-worn camera videos more available to the public and that discussing the issue with Faircloth was a better way to bring about change than passing a meaningless resolution.
City Councilmember Marikay Abuzuaiter said that if the city didn’t approve the contract then if the state did change HB972, Greensboro would have no body-worn camera footage to be released because the program would have ended.
In the beginning of the discussion, those in Johnson’s camp were getting loud and shouting at the council from the audience, and Vaughan had one of the protestors, Brian Watkins, removed from the meeting. Watkins, who has been allowed to disrupt several meetings in the past, is a registered sex offender according to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety website.
After the security guards removed Watkins from the room, the meeting proceeded in a much more orderly fashion.