In an exclusive interview with NewsChannel 12's reporter, Kate Hussey, Attorney General Josh Stein weighed in on the Pasquotank County controversy regarding the release of body camera footage from the night deputies fatally shot 42-year-old Andrew Brown Jr.
The court was expected to show the body camera footage to Brown's family Monday, but hours after it was expected, the court only showed 20 seconds of it, telling the family it had to be "redacted" to protect the privacy of the deputies.
Peaceful protests pushing for the release of body camera footage have been continuing for at least 5 days as Pasquotank County Sheriff, Tommy Wooten II, now joins the demonstrators, city council members, Council Chairman Griffin and Governor Cooper in pushing the court to release the footage.
Hussey asked Stein if Wooten, or any law enforcement agency, can release body camera footage without a Judge's court order.
"They can show it, but they don't release the tape," said Stein. "They can't hand it over but they can show what happened."
However, Stein adds a law enforcement leader is restricted as to who can be shown the video. According to House Bill 972, only the person in the video, his or her direct family members if deceased, or legal guardian if under the age of 18, is allowed to see it. The only other person is the attorney for the person in the video or that person's family.
"As for the general public, the judge does has to give his or her approval," says Stein. "I think the law is overly restrictive in that regard, it's a relatively new law."
Stein says the law passed in July of 2016 under then Governor, McCrory amid privacy concerns from local law enforcement agencies across the state.
"I think that they were trying to bring some resolution because some counties, some police departments, were saying 'this is personnel records and we can't release it.,'" said Stein.
Lawmakers recently filed a bill in the General Assembly on April 5th, which, if passed, would make it easier to get police videos. If passed, it would give agencies 48 hours to release footage once requested.
When asked whether he supports the bill, Stein said he wasn't familiar with this particular legislation, but in the wake of the Elizabeth City incident, is in favor of amending the current law.
"Right now, there is no certainty that the public will ever get to see this video, and that doesn't sit well with us," said Stein. "I think what we need to do is move closer to allowing the public to have a date certain to when we'll all get to know what happened. That transparency will give us all more comfort that our law enforcement is going to help us."
Currently, multiple states have already adopted similar laws. In Colorado and in Georgia, law enforcement agencies are required to release of Body Camera Video within 21 days of a critical incident or complaint, with some specific exceptions.
North Carolina is one of the only states that require a court order to release body camera footage. Others include New Jersey, Louisiana, and Wyoming.
Nearly half of all U.S. States, including the District of Columbia, allow for the release of body camera footage upon demand via a Freedom of Information Request. In some states, the public just has to ask, and have legitimate reason, such as an officer-involved shooting.
Most of those states do, however, have exceptions to the law to protect officers and others that may be seen or heard in the body camera footage.
In California, body camera footage is subject to Public Records Requests, Law Enforcement can refuse if the video is part of domestic violence, rape, or sexual assault investigation shows any intimate or identifying part of a victim. Officers can also refuse if the video shows the identity of a minor, or reveals private information.
Hussey asked Stein if he thought North Carolina was lagging behind in progress.
"I think North Carolina law is too restrictive. I really think we need to take a fresh look at it and allow for an easier process to allow the public to see what happened," said Stein. "I understand that we need to allow law enforcement to conduct their investigation and not have that impacted by the release but there has to be a date by which we know, yes, the public gets to know what happened."
Stein also said he believes in the Andrew Brown Jr. case, the court should release the video to the public.
"We don't know what happened, there are a lot of stories about what happened. The advantage of body camera footage is that it gives us an objective representation of what happened, and I think we need to resolve people's doubts, one way or the other," said Stein.
Stein also expressed his sympathy for Brown's family.
"What a tragic situation, anytime anyone loses their life it breaks our hearts, and mine goes out to the Brown family. As a preliminary matter, it's really important that the family and their representatives be able to see the video and I understand they've reached an agreement with the Sheriff and the County," said Stein.
Stein has reached out to District Attorney Henry Womble, offering his assistance if needed.
As for the recent bill, it has passed its first reading and has been referred to the committee.