Recent editorials from North Carolina newspapers:
The Greensboro News & Record on police body cameras:
The Guilford County Sheriff's Office in early 2016 will add 213 body cameras as standard equipment.
Problem is, it will not add public access to what those cameras see.
Even as local enforcement increases the footage officers will record of their interactions with the public, those images will be for their eyes only — viewable by officers and their supervisors, but not by media or the general public.
Sheriff BJ Barnes said last week that he believes a citizen with a complaint against a deputy ought to have access to the footage. But absent a new state law, that won't happen. Citing the same constraints, the Greensboro Police Department also shields officer video from public view.
The state legislature could have resolved this matter in its last session. But it seemed too busy poking into the affairs of local governments to give the issue the time and attention it deserved.
"Raleigh really needs to address this specifically and do something about public records specific to body-worn cameras," County Attorney Mark Payne told the News & Record. "It is a minefield every time someone makes a request for it."
Even so, all we got last summer was a legislative committee to study body cameras. For now, current law defines the footage as a confidential personnel record.
As a recent Washington Post investigation noted, we are not alone. Most law enforcement agencies across the country that use body cams have kept a tight grip on the footage. Only a handful allow public access.
Mayor Nancy Vaughan has said she is hopeful that state lawmakers may revisit the issue next year. "I think the video should be released under certain circumstances," she told editorial writers recently. " ... At some point our legislation is going to have to catch up with the technology."
Current law does allow the City Council to rule that footage be released in circumstances in which the public's trust and confidence are at stake. But so far, the council has not seen fit to do so.
Odds are, the council will face this question again. Already, video has been critical in two high-profile cases in Greensboro. One involved two African American brothers who were arrested in 2014 for obstructing traffic on a nearly deserted neighborhood street. Rufus Scales, 26, also was charged with drunken and disorderly conduct, which he disputed.
Ultimately City Manager Jim Westmoreland apologized, the charges were dropped and the officer involved was suspended for two days. Part of the incident had been captured by Devin Scales on his own video camera and posted online. Raise your hand if you believe this would have happened without video evidence that was made public.
In October, the Scales brothers were featured prominently in a New York Times story about disproportionate traffic stops of African Americans by Greensboro police. In the second case, also in 2014, a knife-wielding woman with bi-polar disorder was fatally shot after ignoring the officer's calls to stop. Officer Timothy Bloch was wearing a camera when he shot Chieu-di Thi Vo, 47, an immigrant who spoke little English. The footage has not been released, even after an investigation determined that Bloch had acted appropriately.
Vaughan said the city had offered to support Vo's family seeing the footage in a friendly lawsuit, in which one amicable party sues another as a means to reach a legal settlement. But Vo's family didn't respond. So the video may never be released.
For the time being, Greensboro uses police footage for training and feedback. But the main thrust for buying the cameras was supposed to be community trust.
That won't happen as long as the public is treated as an unequal partner in "accountability."
The Fayetteville Observer on transparency in state government:
How open and honest is state government in North Carolina? Not very, according to a new report from the Center for Public Integrity.
The center's 2015 State Integrity Investigation gave our state a D grade. In part, that's because there's a pretty significant gulf between what the law requires and what state agencies actually do. State records laws are specific about what's public and what's not.
But heel-dragging in producing documents is routine. And no state official or board has the power to compel compliance. If you can't get the documents you want, you've got to go to court, which many individuals can't afford. And even when institutions like the news media do file suit, the courts move slowly.
Then there are the disclosures that lobbyists are required to make about spending, donations and other efforts to influence the passage of legislation. The disclosure laws are pretty good, but budget cuts in the past few years have eliminated nearly half of the staff charged with reviewing the reports. Bills can be passed and signed into law before the public knows what special interests were behind them.
And consider judicial oversight, which has all but collapsed behind a secret curtain. Until 2013, we had a state Judicial Standards Commission that disciplined judges for wrongdoing. Much of its proceedings were public. But the General Assembly handed judicial oversight to the state Supreme Court and made disciplinary hearings private. Case records are confidential unless the high court takes disciplinary action.
All of that is eye-opening and discouraging. But what's really remarkable is that North Carolina's D grade is pretty good, if we put it in national context. We rank 18th out of 50 states. And if you grade on a curve, a D becomes a B, because not one state got an A or a B and only three got C or C-minus grades - Alaska, California and Connecticut.
We're hoping our lawmakers will feel a new incentive to create more open government, thanks to the UNC Board of Governors' actions in closed meetings that led to the selection of a new system president and substantial raises for a dozen chancellors. The secrecy infuriated top legislative leaders, who had called for an open selection process and imposed stringent spending limits on the university system. We hope their outrage leads to cutting the fog of secrecy that hides too much of our government. Remember those two words: Our government.
The Charlotte Observer on the role of campaign contributors in state politics:
If there were any North Carolinians out there who still doubted that campaign contributors get special treatment from some politicians, they surely have been disabused of that notion by a series of recent revelations.
The latest head-shaker came Tuesday, courtesy of Patrick Gannon of the N.C. Insider news service.
Gannon reported that Republican Rep. David Lewis of Dunn, the House Rules Committee chairman and one of the state's more powerful legislators, pushed a change to state law that protected the state contract of one of his biggest contributors. Here's what happened:
On March 31, a House committee signed off on a bill that would have had a state agency, rather than a private company, sell cars seized from repeat DWI offenders. The next day, Lewis' campaign received a $5,000 contribution from Rickie Day, president of the company that currently holds the contract for the eastern half of the state.
The next day, Lewis added a provision that would force the bill to go through his Rules committee. The bill sat untouched for months.
But then Republican Rep. George Cleveland of Jacksonville added the bill's language to the state budget. That passed Sept. 18. Lewis then used a "technical corrections" bill to nullify that budget language. That passed at 4:12 a.m. on Sept. 30, minutes before the legislature adjourned. Day's contract was essentially saved.
Lewis says Day sought his help in protecting his contract and he gave it, but not because of the $5,000 contribution. He says he just believes contractors can do the work better than the state can.
"Throw me in the briar patch," Lewis told Gannon. "Accuse me of trying to fight for my folks. I'm OK with that."
Businessman's contract is threatened. He makes large contribution to powerful legislator. Legislator protects businessman's contract. That's called transactional politics, and Lewis isn't the first to do it.
The Observer and the (Raleigh) News & Observer reported last month that Gov. Pat McCrory personally intervened to help friend and contributor Graeme Keith, a Charlotte businessman, retain a multi-million dollar state contract for prison maintenance. McCrory convened a meeting where Keith, according to those present, said that for over 10 years he "had given a lot of money to candidates running for public office and it was now time for him to get something in return."
Over the objections of the Department of Public Safety, Keith's contract was extended. The FBI is investigating.
The News & Observer also reported on the attention McCrory gave to one of his big donors, Charlie Shelton, over truckers parking to sleep on the side of the road. That was far less concerning, but still illustrated the special access large contributors often enjoy.
Our state's politics are awash in cash, for both parties. Donors should be banned from winning contracts. Until then, journalists and the public must cast a vigilant eye on the work of their so-called public servants.