It’s about more than just a video

This editorial appeared in the Havelock News in North Carolina:

It’s really rather simple: “The public records and public information compiled by the agencies of North Carolina government or its subdivisions are the property of the people.”

And we'll be honest. Rarely do most people – even journalists – have to worry about the words that make up the preamble to the state’s public records law. Even rarer is when residents or journalists have to use the public records law to get what they have a right to have from the government. After all, in general, government is fairly cooperative. People in government understand the rules and the laws, and in general, want to comply.

But despite the laws on the books that appear black and white, attorneys have different interpretations of such laws. That is the case with police dashboard camera video of a Feb. 21 traffic stop made by fired Havelock police officer Alex Swearer.

City officials have told us that Swearer’s termination was based on his conduct during this stop, with a hint that it may have had something to do with “reasonable suspicion” and “voluntary consent to search” concepts, according to documents provided by the city. Citing personnel and privacy issues, they have not released much more and have refused to release the police dashboard camera video from the traffic stop.

There are laws and rules that protect a government employee’s personnel files, even though that employee is paid from public tax money. Those are what city officials say restrict them from releasing the video.

On the surface, that seems to make sense. However, police video is not taken to be part of an officer’s personnel file. If that were the case, no police video would ever be permitted to be used as evidence in court. After all, if it’s a personnel document and not considered public, it would be off limits to all, even as evidence in a crime.

We know from the many police videos online that they are very much public. Plenty of police departments in North Carolina have released dashboard camera or police body camera video. In a recent case from this year, Lincolnton police released body camera video from an officer who shot and killed a dog. Rumors had circulated that the shooting was not justified, but the video was released to the public and clearly showed the dog charging the officer.

So why is release of the traffic stop video so important? The video represents an honest recording of what happened. It represents the truth. It could help clear up rumors that are sometimes sparked by an individual’s own personal agenda or even a person’s poor memory of an event.

As Amanda Martin, general counsel for the N.C. Press Association, wrote in the organization’s newsletter: “Videos from dash cams and body cams are little more than a bare naked, honest recording of what has taken place. They offer an un-edited and un-editorialized account of an event.”

Some may simply not care. They may wonder why such a big deal is being made of one officer’s termination or of the city’s refusal to release a video.

This issue isn’t about one video, or even one officer. It’s about trust and truth in government. It’s about the people’s rights as citizens to know what government is doing.

We have trust in David Magnusson as police chief. We have trust in City Manager Frank Bottorff and other city officials, but as former President Ronald Reagan said, quoting an old adage, “trust, but verify.”

Even the N.C. Supreme Court, in a ruling five years ago, determined that a state agency must not “be permitted to police its own compliance with the Public Records Act.” Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote, “People in an open society do not demand infallibility from their institutions, but it is difficult for them to accept what they are prohibited from observing.”

We the people have a very important role in democracy. We must monitor our government. It does not operate on its own. It derives its power from the people, and if the people simply don’t care, government could be left unchecked to fire people at will, hire people at will, spend your tax money at will or create new laws that restrict your freedoms at will.

So you see, it really is rather simple.