Broad NC police reform measure gets final legislative OK
Published 12:01 am Wednesday, August 25, 2021
By GARY D. ROBERTSON
RALEIGH (AP) — The General Assembly finalized a police reform bill on Tuesday designed to get rid of undisciplined officers at North Carolina law enforcement agencies while emphasizing mental health assistance for others.
The consensus measure, which creates both public and confidential databases that monitor officer histories and requires officers to report excessive force by colleagues, still omitted many criminal justice recommendations from Democrats and a task force commissioned by Gov. Roy Cooper.
Still, Cooper is likely to sign the bill, given that only two legislators — both House members — voted against it. The Senate gave unanimous approval on Tuesday to House changes.
Supporters hailed the measure for including needed improvements during a time of national focus on racial inequity and police shootings of Black residents. They included last year’s killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody and the fatal shooting in April of Andrew Brown Jr. in Elizabeth City by Pasquotank County sheriff’s deputies.
The measure also addresses a situation stemming from Brown’s death by altering the process by which the family members can view privately the police body camera footage of a death or serious injury. Brown’s family was unhappy with the pace in which they were able to see large segments of video.
The bill would create a public database to determine whether an officer’s certification has been suspended or revoked. The state also would create a database accessible only by law enforcement that contains “critical incident information” about when an officer has been involved in a case resulting in death or serious injury. Local agencies also would be required to create internal data collection when officers discharge weapons or are subject to citizen complaints.
“Most of our officers do the right thing,” Sen. Danny Britt, a Robeson County Republican and the bill’s chief author, told reporters after the vote. “But for those officers that don’t, hopefully this will prevent those from being in law enforcement. Hopefully this will weed out those bad officers.”
Police officers also would have a duty to report a colleague’s excessive force to superiors, and officers would receive psychological screenings and mental health strategies and training on ethics, the use of force and “minority sensitivity” among other items.
The final version of the measure omitted proposed increased punishments for rioting, like the violence last year amid otherwise largely peaceful demonstrations following Floyd’s death. A bill sponsored by House Speaker Tim Moore addressing rioting is pending.
Some recommendations pushed by the Cooper task force and others but left out of the legislation included eliminating the use of cash bonds for some criminal suspects and further restrictions on the death penalty.
The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina described the legislation as “a missed opportunity to transformatively address systemic racism in North Carolina’s criminal legal system” and blamed law enforcement groups for blocking it.
The law enforcement training and oversight provisions “rely on and perpetuate the falsehoods that the failings of the criminal legal system are the result of ‘a few bad apples’ and that the police can police themselves,” state ACLU policy director Daniel Bowes said in a news release.
But Attorney General Josh Stein, a Democrat who helped lead Cooper’s task force, emphasized panel recommendations that ended up in the final product.
“One law alone can’t improve every part of our criminal justice system, but this law will make our state safer and more just,” Stein said.
On body cam footage, the bill says a police department or sheriff’s office would have to contact a court within three business days of receiving a formal request from a family to see video footage. From there the judge would decide within seven business days, how much footage, if any, could be watched.
Current law gives a law enforcement agency discretion to refuse the request of a family, which could then go to a judge to seek that decision be overturned. Critics say that places a large weight upon the relatives.