Body Cameras

North Carolina's Terrible Body Camera Law Blocks Important Information in a Controversial Police Shooting

Will the public ever see why deputies shot Andrew Brown?


When deputies in Pasquotank County, Tennessee, shot and killed Andrew Brown Jr. while attempting to serve a drug warrant, the whole event was captured on body camera footage.

So we should be able to see it and judge whether the deputies were in danger when they opened fire on Brown, who was behind the wheel of his car at the time of the April shooting. But thanks to North Carolina's extremely restrictive body camera laws, a judge is refusing to release the footage to the public and is even restricting how much Brown's family can see.

Brown, 42, a father of seven, was killed on the morning of April 21. Police say they went to his house with a search warrant looking for crack cocaine, based on information from confidential informants—circumstances that should at this point raise any number of red flags with the public.

Brown apparently attempted to leave the scene in his car. What happened next is not clear. The authorities say Brown's vehicle made contact with law enforcement officers twice as they tried to get him to exit his car, and then they opened fire. Seven deputies were involved, and Brown was shot five times, once in the back of the head, according to an independent autopsy. The deputies are now on administrative leave during the investigation.

So far, Brown's family has seen only a 20-second clip of the body camera footage. They claim it shows an "execution" and that both of Brown's hands were on the steering wheel when he was shot. They say the evidence shows he was trying to leave the scene, not strike the deputies.

The public has seen absolutely none of the footage, even though Pasquotank County Sheriff Tommy Wooten has publicly called for it to be released.

But it's not his call, nor is it Brown's family's. That's because in 2016, North Carolina passed a terrible law that exempted police body camera footage from the state's public records laws. Instead it gave judges the power to decide when and how much body camera footage may be released.

At the end of April, a judge ruled that the footage of Brown's shooting would not be made public as yet, despite the wishes of both the family and the sheriff's department. On Tuesday, the family will be allowed to see more footage of the shooting, but the judge has ordered that the faces of deputies involved be blurred so they cannot be identified.

When the law was originally passed, Reason warned that North Carolina's law would not serve justice. This isn't the only time that forecast has been borne out. In 2017, a judge blocked release of the footage of a teen's violent encounter with the police despite the wishes of the family and the City Council of Greensboro, where the incident took place.

The lack of transparency in Brown's case has led to protest marches, as well it should. Body cameras as a police transparency tool don't work if the footage is kept secret. The fact that George Floyd's death was captured on video, including body camera footage, played a major role in former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin's subsequent murder conviction.

Not everybody who watched the footage came away believing Chauvin was guilty. But at least that was an informed conclusion. Something similar may happen with Brown. People may watch it and some may agree with the family that shooting the man was completely unnecessary. Others may decide that the danger to deputies presented by the car was actually real and therefore the shooting is justified. The point is transparency. The more the public is able to witness police behavior, the more the public is able to decide what police behavior is acceptable.