North Carolina senators advanced a plan designed to make it easier for families to access body camera footage of a relative’s encounter with police.

It’s one step lawmakers will take after the fatal police shooting of Andrew Brown Jr., whose family has struggled through a weeks-long legal process to view body camera footage of his killing.        

The bipartisan provision, which was added to an omnibus criminal justice package, provides a “less onerous way” for family members to view bodycam video, says Sen. Ben Clark (D-Hoke). The legislation is moving through Senate committees and is expected to soon come up for a floor vote.

“We think that just about anyone can agree that if you have a family and one of their members has been subject to some sort of incident [with police], they deserve to be able to see what took place,” Clark said. 

He and other lawmakers approached Sen. Danny Britt (R-Robeson), sponsor of the omnibus legislation, to see if changes to the state's body camera law could be included. They found consensus on the issue of family access, Clark said.              

Under this bill, police would be required to share unredacted body camera footage of incidents that result in serious injury or death with the individual or their family within five days. If law enforcement objects to the disclosure, the agency can petition a court order to have the video edited or withheld.    

That’s a shift from existing law which gives police the discretion to decide whether -- and how much -- video footage to share with family. If the department withholds video, the family can file a legal challenge.

Clark said the language of this proposal, like the five-day timeframe for the video to be disclosed, resulted from discussions with both lawmakers and outside groups like the sheriff’s association and the ACLU.

“I think that if that was my loved one or if that was myself, I would want to see exactly what happened,” Britt, the Republican sponsor, told the Associated Press after a judiciary committee meeting, adding: “However, I also believe there may be compelling reasons for that law enforcement agency to restrict what I see and what my family sees.”

Judges can consider several factors in determining whether to disclose video, such as the impact on any ongoing investigation.

A 2016 state law governing access to body camera footage has come under scrutiny since Brown’s killing. The provision now moving through the state Senate does not make any changes to the rules that dictate how this footage can be made public.     

In North Carolina, body camera footage is not considered a public record, and individuals or law enforcement agencies must petition a court to publicly release the video.     

Pasquotank County sheriff’s deputies shot and killed Brown in his car last month while serving a warrant. Nearly three weeks later, Brown’s family and the public are still trying to understand the events that preceded his death.

Authorities from Pasquotank County initially allowed two family members and one lawyer to watch 20 seconds of body camera footage, with faces of the sheriff’s deputies blurred. A judge has since ruled the family can see additional video from multiple body cameras and a dash cam, though the faces will still be obscured.

Brown’s family was scheduled to view that footage -- about 20 minutes of it -- on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the public has not seen any video from the shooting.

About a week after Brown’s killing, Pasquotank County Attorney Michael Cox and a coalition of media outlets argued for the footage to be made public, but the judge denied that request, citing among several factors the potential risk to any future prosecution. 

Andrew Womble, the district attorney who covers Pasquotank County, argued against the release.

Prior to 2016, there was no statewide standard governing the release of body camera footage in North Carolina, and policies could vary widely from department to department. But numerous advocates and lawmakers -- including the Pasquotank County board of commissioners and Attorney General Josh Stein -- argue the law should now be changed.

Democrats in Raleigh, including Clark, introduced a bill prior to Brown’s killing that would allow body camera footage to be made public within 48 hours of an incident, unless law enforcement asks a court for video to be edited or withheld.

While the prospects of any further changes to the bodycam law are uncertain, Clark said improving access for individuals and their families is an important move. 

“We decided to take that step and that we’ll work for the rest later,” he said. “That’s something we’ll continue to work for.”