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A Powerful Lobby Shaped NC’s Newest Body-Camera Law

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Monday, May 2, 2022   

By Mandy Locke and Danielle Battaglia
Broadcast version by Nadia Ramlagan
Reporting for the Gaston Gazette -North Carolina News Service


Members of the Legislative Black Caucus traveled to Andrew Brown Jr.'s funeral in Elizabeth City in May and asked his family a heavy question.

How could North Carolina do better by families whose loved ones are killed by law enforcement, close to a half dozen legislators asked?

Their answer: surer, swifter, fuller access to the sheriff's department body camera video that revealed what happened. After sheriff's deputies shot and killed Brown, his family waited days, then weeks to see only portions of the video capturing his death.

"We talked to his family members and heard from them firsthand how frustrating it was not to have full access to unredacted footage after his death," said Sen. Natalie Murdock, a Durham Democrat and caucus member who visited with Brown's family.

Back in Raleigh, caucus members got busy. They crafted legislation giving families the right, with few exceptions, to view footage within five days just by asking a police chief or sheriff. Sen. Danny Britt, a high-powered Republican senator, agreed to help them shepherd the legislation, he said.

But the North Carolina Sheriffs' Association, a formidable player in the General Assembly that wields the power of 100 elected politicians, derailed that plan. Its chief lobbyist, a seasoned political operative who often crafts language adopted into bills, overcame roadblocks and pushed forward legislation that stripped away rights families already had.

A law passed this fall raised new barriers between families and that video. Beginning Dec. 1, a police chief or sheriff can no longer simply share any body camera or dashboard video with family members in instances of death or serious injury, a power they held until last month. Families must secure permission from judges, who can refuse access.

"What happened behind the scenes is what almost always happens. The Sheriffs' Association used its incredibly outsized power at the General Assembly and got that done," said Dawn Blagrove, executive director of Emancipate North Carolina, which works with families affected by police violence.

A push for reform

The body camera maneuvering came at a moment of reckoning for the nation. Protests had erupted across the nation, North Carolina included, after a teenage girl recorded a Minneapolis police officer killing George Floyd by pushing a knee into his neck, despite Floyd pleading for air.

After Floyd's death in May 2020, Gov. Roy Cooper appointed a task force to examine issues related to criminal justice and racial inequities. Republican leaders in the House convened a committee to examine the justice system.

Pressure mounted in North Carolina this spring after a sheriff's deputy in Elizabeth City shot Andrew Brown in the back of the head as he tried to drive away from deputies serving an arrest warrant on drug charges.

At the General Assembly, bills emerged that would force officers to intervene when fellow officers used too much force, mandate mental health screenings for law enforcement job candidates and - after some racial-justice protests turned destructive - toughen penalties for rioters.

Britt, a prosecutor turned defense attorney from Robeson County, emerged as the legislator poised to wrangle proposals into a single, comprehensive criminal justice reform bill.

He worked with senators from the Legislative Black Caucus to rework a provision in the public records law to give quick, easier access to the unredacted video just by asking a police chief or sheriff.

In Andrew Brown's case, the family was allowed to see just 20 seconds of video from four body cameras five days after Brown died. Several weeks after Brown was shot and killed inside his car, family members saw only 20 minutes of redacted video out of two hours recorded.

Britt asked several members of the Black caucus to sit with lobbyists for law enforcement groups to hammer out changes that would help families get easier access.

Each group secured a win.

Families whose loved one was killed or suffered serious bodily injury would have a presumed right, with limited exceptions, to view unredacted video within five days of their request. In a nod to law enforcement, any attempt to record and share the footage would trigger criminal penalties.

Senate Bill 300, which included the negotiated body camera provision and much more, passed the Senate unanimously this spring.

Britt, the primary sponsor, took pains to get everyone on board for the entire bill, especially law enforcement, he said.

"The police chief's association, the police benevolent association and the sheriffs' association all initially gave it a thumbs up and said, 'Yeah this is good to go,'" Britt explained.

House maneuvering

On July 14, Britt stood before a dozen or so of his colleagues on the House Judiciary 2 committee. He ticked through the provisions of his law enforcement reform bill that needed House members' support to become law.

Blagrove, of Emancipate NC, and lobbyists for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina studied a three-page memo legislative staff emailed outlining changes the committee would consider. They were confused: the body camera provision didn't match the version the Senate passed.

Gone was the presumption that police chiefs and sheriffs would give families quick access to view unredacted video. The discretion police chiefs and sheriffs already had to show footage to families themselves was missing too. Instead, a judge would have to bless a family's request to see body-camera and dashboard video.

Britt addressed the changes.

The sheriffs' association "did receive more feedback from the elected sheriffs after we voted it out of the Senate," he explained. "And that feedback is what led to the change in the PCS that the sheriffs' association is here to support."

The sheriffs' association had shaped the new language submitted to Britt the night before, Britt told the committee.

When a House committee member asked Britt how the new version differed from the Senate version, Britt said: "I'll let Eddie Caldwell explain that."

Caldwell, a seasoned political operative who has lobbied for the sheriffs' association since 1996, stood to address the committee.

Now general counsel and executive vice-president for the association, Caldwell earned $342,000 in 2020 to help shape policy and law on behalf of elected sheriffs. A former police officer turned lawyer, he has a reputation among lobbyists for securing the demands of his membership.

He told committee members that the more restrictive bill was better for families because a neutral judge is the right audience for their requests.

Rep. Marcia Morey, a committee member and a former chief District Court judge in Durham, pointed out that the new provision would place a greater burden on families.

Caldwell countered. "The interest of the individual involved is very important, but so is, as Sen. Britt mentioned earlier, the interests of justice occurring ... It seems to be better for justice overall," he told the committee.

Blagrove bristled as she addressed the committee.

"This bill makes access and transparency to the family who have been victimized inexplicably worse than it is right now," she said. "It takes a monumental step backwards for transparency in law enforcement and for victims and families."

Democrats on the committee ticked through more concerns.

Families shouldn't have to go to a judge if the police agree to share, one said. The wait in rural North Carolina to get before a judge will exacerbate the turmoil for the family, said Rep. Robert Reives, a Democrat from Chatham County. Reives added that it wouldn't be fair to roll back the law until they heard from families affected by it.

Opponents to Caldwell's changes prevailed. The committee voted to strike the sheriffs' language, leaving the bill silent on changes to police video access.

House rules

A month later, SB 300 was in the queue for a vote on the floor of the House. It first had to pass through the House rules committee.

Blagrove had been checking with legislator sources to detect any last-ditch efforts to resurrect the sheriffs' more restrictive body camera language. The answer was no, they assured her.

On Aug. 18, when rules committee members were expected to vote on the House version of SB 300, Blagrove was so unconcerned that she joined a press conference at the state Capitol to criticize a different bill that would enhance penalties for people who riot during protests.

But change was afoot. After losing his bid to change the body camera provision in the House judiciary committee, Caldwell had approached Sen. Don Davis, a Democrat from Greenville and member of the Black caucus.

Caldwell asked Davis, who was not among the caucus members who met with Andrew Brown's family, about resurrecting his changes.

The lobbyist said he made it clear "that we were committed to addressing the issues that we've been working on all along, we were sorry that the provision came out of the bill."

Davis understood that the sheriffs wanted a judge to bless a family's request to view the video, he said in a separate interview. Davis, too, had a goal. He said he wanted a deadline by which families would get an answer.

Davis conferred with Britt, he said, and they agreed to make another attempt to add the language the sheriffs' association had shaped in the House rules committee.

Davis, a Democrat from Greenville, was first elected to the Senate in 2008. After losing reelection in 2010, he secured a seat again in a redrawn district in 2012.

As one of a select number of Democrats on the conference committee that helps square the House and Senate budgets, he has experience working with Republicans.

At the time Davis worked to introduce the amendment at the House rules committee, he said he was unaware of the outcry of opposition in July over the changes Caldwell sought.

"It wasn't like I was trying to operate in the dark on this," he said, adding: "I thought I was doing something good."

Davis did not consult Black caucus members who helped negotiate the Senate version of the provision, said two of them: Murdock and Sen. Toby Fitch, a Democrat from Wilson.

At the House rules committee meeting, Britt again reported that sheriffs had issues with the body camera provision that passed in the Senate. He told members that Davis had worked with the sheriffs to reinstate the law change.

Davis had recruited House committee member Rep. John Torbett, a Republican from Gaston County, to introduce an amendment, he said. The new provision would require a police chief or sheriff, within three days of a family's request, to petition a judge to rule whether they could see the video. Within seven days, a judge would have to decide what, if any, portion of the video would be shown.

Torbett assured the group it wasn't controversial, according to audio of the meeting. "I'm unaware of any police entity being opposed to the amendment," Torbett told the group.

In fact, two other law enforcement groups, the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police and the North Carolina Police Benevolent Association, had concerns. They had favored the Senate version of the body camera change, according to their leaders.

Bill Hollingsed, executive director of the NC Association of Chiefs of Police, said chiefs wanted the ability to directly show families the video footage.

"We found that allowing the individual involved or a family member or attorney of the individual to look at it and see what happens, we can stop a lot of problems from occurring based on the reality of the video. 'Okay, I see what happened. I get it. I understand why you did what you did,' and that's the end of it," Hollingsed said in an interview.

John Midgette, executive director of the NC Police Benevolent Association, agreed. His group, which represents rank-and-file police and deputies, had helped negotiate the Senate version.

His group is often at odds with the Sheriffs' Association, he said. The group has opposed his association's efforts to enact whistleblower protection laws for officers for eight years.

"I don't think it's appropriate for the sheriffs' association to have so much influence on all the rest of law enforcement officers that do not work for the sheriffs," Midgette said.

Neither law enforcement leader, however, tried to block the altered provision as it advanced to a vote, saying they didn't want to derail a largely laudable bill.

When the revised legislation reached the House floor that same day, Rep. Morey, the Durham Democrat and former judge, tried to add back language allowing a chief or sheriff to show the video to family members.

"It's simply, if everyone agrees, 'Let's deescalate a tense situation'," she said, echoing Hollingsed's reasons for supporting the bill.

Her push failed.

The bill, with the new body camera provision, made its way to the Senate six days later, tucked into a 29-page package of legislation primarily aimed at cracking down on problem officers. It passed unanimously.

SB 300 was championed on the left and right. Cooper signed it into law in September, heralding it as a "big step forward."

But Murdock said the final version fell short of helping families get easier access to videos.

"I'm just frustrated that there wasn't some way that family members could have access to that footage without seeking the approval of a judge and having to go through the court system," said Murdock. "We found that to be very burdensome."

Fitch, a former Superior Court judge, blamed Davis for leaving him and others in the Black caucus out of the conversation about last-minute changes.

"I don't work behind the scenes against the same people who asked to work alongside me on an issue," Fitch said.

Davis acknowledges that the provision could have done more. "There is no perfection in this ... but we were trying to get to a time certain for families," said Davis, who added he'd be willing to try to improve the law.

Always a force

The sheriffs' association's ability to propel or kill legislation is felt on both sides of the aisle.

"The sheriffs' association probably has the most power in the legislature for influencing their legislators," said Britt.

The group derives its power from the combined weight of 100 elected sheriffs, many of whom enjoy intense popularity in their home counties. Legislators often run on the same ballot as sheriffs and enjoy sharing a stage during campaigns.

"Your sheriffs' elections typically have the biggest turnout of any election in your county," Britt said.

Being on the ballot puts their actions, including the disclosure of video, in a context that police chiefs don't contend with, he added.

"The police chiefs are not elected. The sheriff is elected, so I get it," Britt said. "The sheriff would have more motivation to have someone else make that decision."

Caldwell downplayed changes he secured in the reform bill. He wanted to help salvage the Black caucus's desire to help ease family access to body camera footage, he said.

Whatever influence the sheriffs' association brings to legislation is rooted in their expertise in law enforcement, Caldwell said in an interview.

"Who best to know how to fix things that need to be fixed than the folks who are in the profession?" he said.

The association's executive board, about a dozen elected sheriffs, shapes its legislative agenda, Caldwell said. His executive board is now all white and mostly Republican.

The body camera law change was no different, Caldwell said. He originally sought the revision after sheriffs who he declined to identify started flagging concerns, he said. Calls to several members of the association's executive board trying to identify them were not returned.

Felicia Arriaga, an immigration activist and professor at Appalachian State University, has evaluated more than a decade of the sheriffs' association's legislative reports. The group is almost always successful at getting what it pursues, she said.

From a program that allowed local deputies to enforce federal immigration laws to preservation of deputies as school resource officers, the sheriffs' association takes positions that receive little substantive pushback, she said.

Needing to know

The shooting death of Andrew Brown, which the local district attorney concluded was justified, brought state and national press to the rural community of Elizabeth City last spring. Coverage persisted as the press and Brown's family fought to see footage of his death and continues as Brown's family sues the county.

But for every case that wins such wide attention, other families navigate the death of loved ones after encounters with law enforcement out of public view. That includes Sharon Torain-Watlington.

As Torain-Watlington watched hospital doctors try to save her husband after a fiery crash in March 2017, so many questions washed over her.

She needed to see what happened to him.

"I wanted to have closure. I just wanted to see what he went through. It was hard for me, but I wanted to see it with my own eyes," said Torain-Watlington during an interview at her home in Graham in November.

Last year, the North Carolina State Highway Patrol allowed her to sit before a monitor and watch a dash cam video of the 20-minute high-speed chase that would end Courtney Jermane Watlington's life, she said.

Torain-Watlington said her husband, 35, had an intense fear of law enforcement after years in prison.

On the night of March 10, 2017, Watlington called his wife to tell her he was on his way home. While talking, he dropped the phone and veered over the line while he reached for it, Torain-Watlington said. Soon, he saw blue lights flashing behind him. He raced away instead of stopping.

The dash camera video showed Watlington racing through an intersection, hitting a car, then crashing into a pole. Flames erupted, and Watlington was trapped inside.

Torain-Watlington said she wept as she heard her husband crying out for help. When she falls asleep at night, she can still hear his screams.

Under the version of SB 300 approved last spring, Torain-Watlington could have seen the video within days after asking law enforcement. Under the law that passed, a judge would need to sanction her viewing.

She shook her head while thinking of herself mustering the strength after her husband died to make a case for herself in court.

"Families shouldn't have to go through those channels," she said.

As much as it hurt her to watch, she had to see for herself what happened to her husband. Families, she said, ought to have that right.

This story was produced with original reporting from Mandy Locke and Danielle Battaglia for the Gaston Gazette,. with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.




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