North Carolina body camera law comes under harsh glare

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Elijah Dillard, center, is surrounded by media as he makes comments after a judges decision on the release body cam video of the shooting of Andrew Brown Jr. in Elizabeth City, N.C., Wednesday, April 28, 2021. A judge denied the request to immediately release body cam video of the incident. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

RALEIGH, N.C. – A North Carolina law that gives local courts authority over the release of body camera video has come under a harsh glare after a judge refused to make public footage of deputies shooting and killing Andrew Brown Jr.

The 2016 law says that law enforcement video is not a public record and generally cannot be released without court approval. A judge ruled Wednesday that body camera and dashboard footage of Brown's death must be kept from public view for at least another month to avoid harming a state investigation. The April 21 shooting happened as deputies were serving drug-related warrants at Brown's home in Elizabeth City.

Lawyers for Brown’s family and racial justice advocates decry what they see as slow movement to release video of his last moments. The family's legal team says the law stands in the way of transparency.

“This law makes absolutely no sense whatsoever,” attorney Bakari Sellers said.

Rules for access to body cameras vary by state and local jurisdictions. In Columbus, Ohio, police released body camera footage within hours of a fatal police shooting of a Black 16-year-old girl. That shooting happened the day before Brown, who was also Black, was killed.

A legal scholar who has studied the law says that it has received generally positive reviews from local governments.

“I’ve talked to cities and counties, and my sense is that the courts are handling it well,” said Frayda S. Bluestein, a law professor at the University of North Carolina’s School of Government in Chapel Hill. The Elizabeth City matter “is the first real sort of blow-up.”

Two North Carolina cases from last year show how application of the law can vary from place to place. Raleigh’s police chief asked a court in March 2020 to release footage of a nonfatal police shooting that sparked protests, and the footage was made public two days after the shooting.