Show Us The Tape: North Carolina’s New Bodycam Bill Keeps Public in the Dark

ELIZABETH CITY, NC - MAY 11: A man riding a bicycle uses a bullhorn during a protest march following a news conference addressing police video footage of the shooting death of Andrew Brown Jr. on May 11, 2021 in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Brown was shot and killed by officers from the Pasquotank County Sheriff's Office on April 21. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

By Billy Ball

May 16, 2021

Pasquotank County law enforcement and Andrew Brown Jr.’s family are telling wildly different stories about his death. Why take anyone’s word for it if there’s tape?

The family of Andrew Brown Jr. in Elizabeth City says he was executed by trigger-happy law enforcement. Law enforcement says they fired on a fleeing criminal who’d threatened their lives with his vehicle. 

There is footage of the whole thing, but in North Carolina, we’ll have to take someone’s word for it on what happened. 

That’s because for the time being, North Carolina does not consider footage of the incident to be public record—even after Democrats and Republicans in the state Senate came to an agreement this week on rewriting NC’s secretive bodycam law. Barring court intervention, the law excludes bodycam footage from public record, although if this week’s legislative changes pass the footage will be easier for families to access.

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The bodycam law seemed to catch literally all but two lawmakers asleep at the wheel when it was passed in 2016. 

“What we’re seeing are the actual consequences of a law that stacks the deck against release of footage, and that’s having immediate impacts on the ground in Elizabeth City,” state Sen. Jeff Jackson, who voted against the law in 2016, wrote on Twitter May 3. 

This week’s redraft of the law included a handful of criminal justice reforms, such as a database allowing law enforcement agencies to keep track of problematic police who hop from one department to another. It also sets a relatively tight deadline—within five days of the incident—for family to view the footage unless police convince a judge to keep it secret. North Carolina residents, including those outraged by the Elizabeth City shooting, will remain in the dark until judges and law enforcement deem otherwise. 

“What are they hiding?” Bishop William Barber II asked Thursday in Elizabeth City. “What do they have to hide?”

Anyone who considers the civil rights leader’s questions presumptive or speculative should reconsider. State and local officials in North Carolina are, by definition, hiding something.

ELIZABETH CITY, NC – MAY 11: (L-R) Attorneys Chance Lynch, Bakari Sellers and Harry Daniel hold a news conference about police video footage of the shooting death of Andrew Brown Jr. on May 11, 2021 in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Brown was shot and killed by officers from the Pasquotank County Sheriff’s Office on April 21. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” the Wizard of Oz shouted at Dorothy when she spied the little man behind the smoke and theatrics. Same principle here.

Does that mean deputies in Pasquotank County acted improperly when they fired on Brown, shooting him four times in the arm and once in the back of the neck as he allegedly attempted to run from law enforcement serving a drug-related search warrant? Not necessarily. 

But here’s a good rule of thumb: If public officials do everything they can to prevent the public from seeing something, the public should probably take a look at it.

If a judge tells the general public that it cannot see video of Andrew Brown Jr.’s death, one captured by police body camera, it is not only fair to question authorities. It is the right thing to do.

Justice Shouldn’t Vary By State

As North Carolina media attorney Mike Tadych told Cardinal & Pine recently, bodycam law varies a great deal depending on where you live. What’s public in one state is not public in another

In other words, depending on where law enforcement kills or harms your relative, you may or may not be able to see tape of it. That’s as good an advertisement for federal oversight or a special prosecutor as you’re likely to see in this matter. Justice shouldn’t have a zip code.

States are operating in a relatively new realm of the law as it concerns body cameras. But here’s the problem. North Carolina’s legislature is not working in a vacuum. And in a matter of days, weeks, or months, this rewrite if passed as is will look as feeble as the law it replaces.

If you’ve spent the last three weeks pounding the pavement in Elizabeth City, you won’t be swayed by a statutory change that continues to dodge even the appearance of transparency, regardless of whether it represents a sign of marginal progress among North Carolina Democrats and Republicans. 

“We have a ways to go,” state Sen. Gladys Robinson, a Greensboro Democrat, said on the Senate floor Wednesday as legislators prepared to pass the bodycam revisions. “But this is an excellent start.”

If someone starts a foot race five years after the gun goes off, you probably shouldn’t call it an excellent start.

ELIZABETH CITY, NORTH CAROLINA – MAY 03: Jha’rod Ferebee wipes a tear away during the funeral for his father Andrew Brown Jr. at the Fountain of Life church on May 03, 2021 in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Mr. Brown was shot to death by Pasquotank County Sheriff’s deputies on April 21. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

There is a school of thought that timely release of bodycam footage could taint the investigation or put law enforcement at risk. These concerns should be acknowledged here. It’s these claims, not those made by civil rights leaders like Bishop Barber, that should be considered presumptive or speculative. 

To this moment, no one has presented a single compelling and decent bit of evidence for why bodycam footage of any American’s police-involved killing—including Andrew Brown Jr.’s—shouldn’t be public record. 

The public’s reaction to a public record—be it angry, confused, or even belligerent—is not sufficient reason to make that record private. It is not the publishing of that record that is the problem; it is what’s contained on that record.

And for now that record remains, as Barber put it this week, hidden.


  • Billy Ball

    Billy Ball is Cardinal & Pine's senior community editor. He’s covered local, state and national politics, government, education, criminal justice, the environment and immigration in North Carolina for almost two decades, winning state, regional and national awards for his reporting and commentary.

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