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NC ACLU Touts Phone App To Document Police Misconduct

A screenshot of the Mobile Justice app, designed to document police encounters.
ACLU of North Carolina
A screenshot of the Mobile Justice app, designed to document police encounters.
A screenshot of the Mobile Justice app, designed to document police encounters.
A screenshot of the Mobile Justice app, designed to document police encounters.

Governor Pat McCrory signed a bill on Monday making it harder for the public to gain access to police body camera footage. In response, the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union says citizens should be prepared to film law enforcement encounters themselves.

"It's especially important that people know they have a right to film police, in light of the really shameful law that Governor McCrory signed this week that restricts public access to police body camera and dashboard camera footage," said Communications Director Mike Meno.

North Carolina Secretary of Public Safety Frank Perry rejected the claim that House Bill 972 is overly restrictive. He said the law, which deemed police videos are no longer public record and limits who can access the footage, will ensure a predictable and timely response from law enforcement agencies across the state.

"The law makes it that we respond quickly to the person requesting disclosure," said Perry. "In the past, some sheriffs said no to the media or to the public, and some said yes. This law requires uniformity statewide."

Perry said agencies have three days to respond to a request for footage, if that request comes on behalf of one of the participants in the video. If a law enforcement agency denies a request for footage, it can be appealed in Superior Court.

Nonetheless, critics of the law say restricting who can access those videos will keep footage of police actions out of the public eye.  The ACLU is urging people to document police encounters using a free phone app. TheMobile Justice appcan record footage and transmit a copy to the ACLU-NC. Lawyers review the videos to see if the encounters warrant legal action.

"If you believe someone's rights are being violated, and you have a smartphone in your pocket, you carry a very powerful tool to document those encounters and then do something about it," said Meno.

The app has been available for more than a year, but Meno said the recent police shootings caught on video in Louisiana and Minnesota sparked a new wave of interest. Downloads have increased from 10,000 a few months ago to more than 25,000 across the state.

The group has reviewed hundreds of videos since 2015, though to date, none have prompted legal action. Still, Meno called the app a necessary tool to hold law enforcement accountable. 

"The nationally publicized video recordings of the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile are very powerful reminders of the fact that this technology gives people an unprecedented tool to document police misconduct," said Meno.

The ACLU is exploring legal challenges to the new body camera law.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect recent comments from the North Carolina Secretary of Public Safety.

Copyright 2016 North Carolina Public Radio

Elizabeth Friend