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"We are just gonna go out and start slaughtering them…" said Wilmington, North Carolina police officer Michael 'Kevin' Piner, referring to Black people with an expletive and a racial slur. "I can't wait. God, I can't wait."
This was a small part of a rage-filled phone call between Piner and his cop buddies James 'Brian' Gilmore, and Jessie E. Moore II. Their conversation was accidentally recorded by a dashboard camera and discovered during a routine audit in early June. On June 24, the city's newly appointed Chief of Police, Donny Williams, held a press conference to announce that all three officers had been fired.
But he didn't stop there. In a highly unusual move, Williams also released documents from the internal investigation of Piner, Gilmore, and Moore.
"Why are we releasing this information this way and at this time? Because it is the right thing to do. Normally, personnel laws allow only a very small amount of information to be made public," Williams said.
"However, in exceptional cases, when it is essential to maintain public confidence in the administration of the City and the Police Department, more information may be released. This is the most exceptional and difficult case I have encountered in my career. We must establish new reforms for policing here at home and throughout this country."
Williams' decision is extraordinary because, more often than not, police keep a tight grip on public records—even those that the law requires them to share. As communities nationwide demand changes—or an end—to policing, many are pushing for greater transparency as a vital step.
In North Carolina, a coalition called Alamance Agents for Change (AAC) is demanding access to police records.
A rural county between Greensboro and Durham, Alamance has had two residents killed by police in recent months. A county commissioner heightened tensions in June when he publicly bragged about how he used to "beat the hell" out of people when he was a police officer. And there's also a battle over a Confederate monument underway.
Four years ago, the Southern Poverty Law Center identified a local neo-confederate organization as a hate group, though it was removed from SPLC's Hate Map in 2018. In this context, members of AAC worry that local police may be involved in hate groups, pointing to a 2019 report by Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting which found that thousands of law enforcement officials participate in racist groups online.
"We have pretty broad, sweeping laws when it comes to law enforcement, and pretty big blind spots in our public records law."
One of AAC's demands is to make law enforcement disciplinary records public.
"In less than six months, there have been two police-involved shootings [In Alamance County], and the process of investigation and release of information does not appear very transparent," explained Tamara Kersey-Brown, a local pastor and leader in the AAC coalition.
"We're still not clear if there have been disciplinary actions," she said.
Whereas journalists were able to obtain records of excessive force complaints against Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter in the killing of George Floyd, North Carolina law doesn't require law enforcement agenices to release such documents.
North Carolina is one of 23 states, including Virginia, and Mississippi, where police disciplinary records are mostly confidential. Many Southern states have ambiguous laws that sometimes allow access to these records. Alabama, Georgia, and Florida are the Southern states with laws granting the most access to police disciplinary records.
Like most states, North Carolina has its own version of the federal Freedom of Information Act. But according to Brooks Fuller, director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition, there are "murky" and "gray" areas of public-records law that keep most people from accessing information.
"We have pretty broad, sweeping laws when it comes to law enforcement, and pretty big blind spots in our public records law," Fuller said. "It makes it very hard for citizens to bring lawsuits to recover anything. Not only should we have access to the law, but we own the law."
According to Fuller, personnel laws do not entirely shield police records, so he sometimes helps to file amicus briefs in legal battles over public records. He added that although North Carolina statutes say the public should have "liberal" access to information, several protections are in place that prohibit the success of these court challenges.
"My experience has been that it goes off into outer space and they count on you not following up."
The gray areas in the law have also hindered reporting about other pressing issues, like the COVID-19 pandemic.
Several members of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition have sued the state over 26 outstanding requests submitted by media outlets for records that could be helpful in reporting on COVID-19. Gov. Cooper cited being busy with the health crisis as the reason for the delay.
Meanwhile, North Carolina ranks low in terms of public records and accountability, with failing grades from the Better Government Association and the National Freedom of Information Coalition, and in the latest State Integrity Investigation by The Center for Public Integrity.
Tina Vasquez, a Durham-based investigative reporter, has filed dozens of records requests with state and federal law enforcement agencies. Not a single request has been honored. (Editor's note: Vasquez is a freelancer who has written for Scalawag.)
"My experience has been that it goes off into outer space and they count on you not following up," said Vasquez.
Vasquez said she's seen more than one instance in which law-enforcement personnel didn't understand the records-request laws.
"I feel like it's such an easy out, they'll always use that as a reason to not give you information," she added. "Whether state level or federal, it has been alarming, the agencies' lack of understanding. They need records request training… they seem to be confused."
Vasquez also expressed concerns that the changing media landscape makes it more difficult for freelance journalists to follow up on FOIA requests.
"In terms of transparency and the open records stuff, we've got to figure out how to build the infrastructure and make government transparent in the absence of traditional media," she said.
As a legal affairs reporter for the Winston-Salem Journal, Michael Hewlett has worked for traditional media sources for more than 20 years and has also faced challenges to obtaining public records.
"One of the things I've tried to do is make sure I understand the public records laws… to understand what I am requesting and what I am entitled to," he said.
"This should be public already. You shouldn't have to fight so hard."
Hewlett acknowledged that there are times when decisions to withhold public records are legitimate, like when officials are concerned about protecting a defendant's right to a fair trial. But groups like AAC argue that law enforcement agencies are more likely to release details of a defendant's criminal past and current charges, even while limiting similar access to information from an officer's past.
According to Hewlett, he has had to educate law enforcement in many situations about public-records requests. In neighboring Davie County, when a deputy was fired the Sheriff's office said the public wasn't entitled to see the termination letter.
Hewlett presented the facts. "If someone is terminated and there was a termination letter, that has to be made public… I was able to cite a particular law, and they made the information available within a week or so."
But he believes the real key to public information is that anyone, even without a journalism credential, should be able to gain legal access.
Jeremy Borden, a North Carolina-based independent journalist and researcher, has criticized the need to make public information requests. As an alternative, he pointed to the city of Charlotte, which created an easy-to-use online database of public records.
"Every request for information is a failure of open government," Borden stated. "If more agencies and elected officials made [information] available, the requests wouldn't be necessary."
Borden, founder of the political news website Untold Story, said he has experienced the denial of access to public information across the country. "It's frustrating because—and maybe this is the journalist in me —this should be public already. You shouldn't have to fight so hard."
Despite the failure of public information laws, members of AAC remain hopeful. Kersey Brown says she is personally motivated by a friend whose son was killed in a police shooting with no "accountability." AAC has given local governments a firm deadline to respond to requests for transparency within law enforcement and say that a call for "diverting resources" from police could be the next phase of demands.