Editor’s note: This week marks Sunshine Week, a week dedicated to open government and freedom of information.
WILMINGTON — When it comes to open government there are varying degrees of openness, from public records to open meetings, but when it comes to the police, nothing is easy.
For example, even though the police are paid for by taxpayers and all of the equipment issued comes from public funds, thanks to a 2016 law body camera footage is no longer public record.
This means that even though footage from a body camera or dashboard camera could provide insight into police and civilian interactions, a court order is the only way that footage will be released. But not everyone believes the law is the right way to handle police recordings.
“While the 2016 law requires the public to seek approval from the courts in order to see police recordings, we believe that in certain situations sharing this video is essential to maintaining public trust,” Wilmington Police Spokeswoman Linda Thompson said.
This law has been brought up in local cases and, as recently as February, Chief District Court Judge J.H. Corpening invited Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo and City Attorney Meredith Everhart to discuss the law. Since a court order is required to obtain the footage, Corpening alluded in an email to the amount of time spent on the issue, causing a backup in court.
“There are lots of rumblings about our new law on recordings set out in 132-1.4(A). Woody White and I are inviting some city and county folks to talk about the issue and whether there are solutions short of a lengthy line in civil superior court every month,” he said in an email to Everhart.
According to County Commissioner Chairman Woody White, government transparency is something that needs to be addressed, not only with regard to the dashboard camera laws, but in all aspects of government employees.
“This is an important issue, and one that demands constant vigilance. I believe that everything government does should be transparent. Specifically, personnel laws should be reformed to allow exposure of investigations, and information about work performance, lawsuits, etc.,” White said. “If the taxpayer is paying your salary, they deserve to know the kind of job you are doing and they deserve to know why you may be in trouble.
“A second area of needed reform is with law enforcement body and dash cams,” White added. “The legislature enacted a bad law in 2016 that makes it hard for people to get access to videos created from dash/body cams. In an age where we are creating new and easier ways for the public to be informed, this law takes us back decades.”
The law in question specifically states that recordings are not considered public records and are also not considered personnel records.
According to the law, “… A person requesting disclosure of a recording must make a written request to the head of the custodial law enforcement agency that states the date and approximate time of the activity captured in the recording or otherwise identifies the activity with reasonable particularity sufficient to identify the recording to which the request refers.”
There are also more restrictions as to who can make the request. The recordings can only be released to:
- A person whose image or voice is in the recording
- A personal representative of an adult person whose image or voice is in the recording, if the adult person has consented to the disclosure
- A personal representative of a minor or of an adult person under lawful guardianship whose image or voice is in the recording
- A personal representative of a deceased person whose image or voice is in the recording
- A personal representative of an adult person who is incapacitated and unable to provide consent to disclosure
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