So What Does It Take To Get Police Shooting Video Under New Law? We're Trying To Find Out

Nov 7, 2016

A new state law on police video got a lot of attention after the shooting of Keith Scott in September. The law passed in June means police departments can no longer choose to handover body and dash cam footage to the public, but neither can they just ignore requests. As of October 1st, North Carolina requires a court order to release police video. WFAE's Lisa Worf went in search of one to understand what it now takes to get this footage.

Two schools of thought on HB972

Allen McNeill is one of the bill's chief sponsors. 

"Everybody is trying to make out like this is going to be a very, very complicated process and that it's going to be hard to get. I disagree," says the Republican from Asheboro

One critic is Jonathan Jones of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition. 

"The process that they put in place was onerous and this bill would not lead to meaningful transparency of law enforcement records," says Jones. 

Getting body and dash cam video in North Carolina has never been easy. Police departments have either treated them as personnel records or as part of an investigation. But now there's at least a process to release police footage.

"What you have to do is go to court, you have to file a form, you have to serve it on the police department and the district attorney," says Jones.

So what advice does Jones have for those filing a petition?

"My best advice is to talk to the police department and DA in advance and try to convince them before you go down to the courthouse. Because if they're opposed to it being released, I don't think it will be released," says Jones.    

Filing a petition for police video

You actually have to file a civil action to get the video. That comes with a $200 fee. And that petition can't just list a bunch of videos from different cases. Each case costs $200.

WFAE chose a case from June where a man shot someone in the foot on a CATS bus, then walked off. According to a CMPD press release, Officers Michael Bell and Garret Tryon saw a man fitting the description of the shooter walking beside N. Tryon. They got out of their cars and saw he had a handgun. CMPD says Rodney Rodriguez Smith fired at least one shot and the officers fired multiple shots.  Smith died shortly afterward. CMPD said he and the shooting victim on the bus knew each other.

The DA's office still has not said whether it will charge the officers, although CMPD Chief Kerr Putney called their actions heroic. A CMPD spokesman says they're now back on the beat.

I checked with CMPD to make sure video of that encounter actually exists. It does. I began inquiring about the process to file a petition for the video in early October, but Mecklenburg County didn't have one in place until the end of the month. I finally go to the courthouse November 1st to file the first petition for police video in Mecklenburg County.

The clerk's office hands me a set of instructions to go about it, along with a few forms.  One is a petition for a public release of a law enforcement agency recording. Another form is the order requiring CMPD to transmit the recording to the courthouse, so that a judge can review it before a hearing.

CMPD lawyers had a harder time getting the forms. I ended up sending them some blank ones, which they appreciated.

The petition is fairly straightforward. It asks for the date and time of the incident captured in the recording, as well as location and the names of the officers involved.

I pay the $200 filing fee, make a few copies of the documents, before taking the elevator to a courtroom on the sixth floor where a judge will set a date for a hearing.

That hearing should be within 4-5 days, says Mecklenburg County Clerk Elisa Chinn-Gary. The new law isn't so specific. It only stipulates that the hearing happen "as soon as practicable."

"The time request is to ensure that the petitioner has time to provide a copy to all of those parties that are represented. Actually, we're all right here kind of close together, so that's something that should be taken care of promptly," says Chinn-Gary. 

On the sixth floor, the courtroom's clerk Richard Lockard has some questions. 

"Now, I know the hearings are going to have to be within five days. Is that five business days?" he asks.

"How's the schedule looking?" I ask. 

"I think we're going to run into a problem with five days. See, this court doesn't run on Friday.  Do you have any idea how long these arguments will last?" asks Lockard.

"I have no idea. I'm arguing for a video that I have not seen. So, in some ways I feel like my argument is probably pretty short and basic," I reply.    

The judge has some questions about the process. It's obvious everyone is still trying to get their minds around the law. So he asks me to come back a few hours later. By the time I do, we have a hearing date: Tuesday November 8.   

The judge has ordered CMPD to get the video to the courthouse within two days, so that a judge can view it before the hearing. By law, CMPD must also provide the judge a list of all law enforcement employees whose image or voice is in the video.

I make more copies and get someone to serve CMPD, the DAs office, and the Trial Court Administrator with the documents. But I need some help here. 

"Do you have any suggestions for process servers? I don't know where to start. Someone who's good and cheap?" I ask.

"I'd start with the sheriff's department," advises Lockard.  

The sheriff's department agrees to serve the documents within a day.  I go two doors down from the courthouse, realize I don't have enough cash, stop at an ATM, and come back to pay another $90. Then, I deliver the documents to the deputies in the courthouse.

The total cost for filing, serving, parking, and copying comes to $310.50. It took three hours and five trips through metal detectors. 

I'll have my day in court on November 8 at 11:00am. I don't know if CMPD or the district attorney's office will oppose it. But I do know my request isn't being ignored.