Transparency delayed as Mecklenburg Co. courts fail to schedule hearings on police video

Updated: Aug. 18, 2020 at 4:29 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - A backlog of petitions for law enforcement video filed in Mecklenburg County Superior Court has created a backlog of transparency, a WBTV investigation has found.

North Carolina law requires a judge’s order for the public to get access to police video. Under the law, police cannot release the video; people captured on the video can view the recording but cannot obtain a copy; and a member of the public must file a petition, pay $200 and have a hearing in front of a judge to determine whether the video will be released.

The law was passed in 2016 and signed into law by then-Governor Pat McCrory, who heralded the legislation as a win for transparency.

But, years later, the law has led to massive delays in Mecklenburg County.

Previously, a WBTV reporter has used the law to obtain video from the fatal shooting of Danquirs Franklin in a Burger King parking lot and to get video showing a gunman opening fire on a group of police officers in the CMPD parking lot, among others.

Previous: Mecklenburg Co. courts improving virtual court access after public shut out of hearing

But records from the county clerk of court show 31 pending petitions for police video, including requests for body camera and traffic camera video. The records provided by the clerk does not differentiate between the type of video being requested.

Of the 31 pending requests, two date back to 2018: one filed in April of that year and another filed in November.

Twelve more petitions that have yet to be heard were filed in 2019. Of the petitions pending that were filed in 2020, 11 were filed in the first three months of the year.

The delays persist in Mecklenburg County despite the law requiring petitions to be heard “as soon as practicable.”

By comparison, Wake County, with a population roughly equal to Mecklenburg, only had four pending petitions as of late July, three of which had been filed in July 2020 and were scheduled for a hearing in August.

Under the law, a hearing on a petition for police video must be scheduled by a judge, which is different from most civil proceedings, which must be calendared by the moving party.

North Carolina Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) helped write the law that was passed in 2016. He said the Mecklenburg County backlog is troubling.

“That strikes me as being something that is problematic,” Berger said of the Mecklenburg County backlog. “And the question is: where is the need for any modification, if at all? Is the problem with the court system? Do they need to do a better job of moving these things through? Is it a problem with the law? Do we need to tweak the law in some way?”

WBTV asked for an interview with either Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Robert Bell or Charleston Carter, the trial court administrator, for this story. In response to our request, a court spokeswoman said she would also talk with Clerk of Superior Court Elisa Chinn-Gary.

All three courthouse leaders refused to answer questions about the backlog for this story.

The courthouse spokeswoman later followed up with an email questioning the accuracy of WBTV’s reporting for this story, based on records provided by Chinn-Gary’s office.

“It is the court’s desire to maintain transparency with the public through the sharing of public records and information; however, there is context that must be provided and education that must be received, to enhance the public’s understanding and interpretation of our court system,” Jessica Davis, the court spokeswoman, said.

“With that said, I want to ensure that the information you share with the public is based in fact and current data. In that regard, your characterization of there being a ‘massive backlog of petitions required under a law designed to increase police transparency’ is not true.”

Davis said a review of the 31 pending petitions showed that all but five petitions were seeking video of from traffic cameras. She did not provide any specific case details, though, or provide court paperwork to support her claim.

The five pending cases, Davis said, were being scheduled.

Despite the scheduling claim, there has been no effort to calendar a hearing for a pending petition filed in early March by a WBTV reporter. It is not clear if or when the pending cases will be heard.

Even with the delays in Mecklenburg County, Berger defended the 2016 law’s framework of requiring requests for police video to go before a judge.

“I think the use of the court system or a neutral arbiter of some sort to make the decision or to, at least, vet the issue in front of is appropriate,” he said.

“I think giving complete discretion to police agencies, law enforcement agencies, is something that’s just going to foster additional questions when they say there are reasons for the video not to be released,” Berger continued. “I think giving them the decision making by themselves could be problematic because they’ll just resist or because they might be pushed into a decision for political reasons. So I think having a judge, which is the way we have it set up, or some neutral arbiter, making the decision is a better way for us to go.”

Berger said it is time to review the 2016 law and see if any changes or improvements can be made.

“I think we can look at some of those issues and see whether or not there might be a better way to ensure that folks get in front of that neutral arbiter,” he said.

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