In a first, N.C. looks to track officer shootings and misconduct

The bill would also require potential new officers to pass a psychological screening before being hired

By Will Doran
The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

RALEIGH, N.C. — For the first time, North Carolina could soon keep track of when police officers kill people, or are caught lying under oath in court, or receive complaints from the community.

If Gov. Roy Cooper signs a criminal justice bill that passed the N.C. General Assembly with near-unanimous support in recent days, state officials will be ordered to start tracking that sort of information.

The bill, Senate Bill 300, is a bipartisan effort to crack down on bad cops — and to try to figure out whether problems like excessive force in the criminal justice system are confined to a small number of officers, or if they are more systemic.

"One of those things that shouldn't be a partisan issue, but often becomes a partisan issue, is criminal justice reform," said Sen. Danny Britt, a Lumberton Republican and the bill's lead sponsor.

The bill would create several databases to track police use-of-force and disciplinary issues, but much of the information would not be available to the public, like details about which officers have been secretly banned from testifying in court for issues like lying under oath. That information would be available for the first time ever to the state boards that grant or take away the certifications required to work in law enforcement, but would continue to be hidden from the general public.

The bill would also require any potential new officers to pass a psychological screening before being hired, among numerous other changes to rules governing police and the courts. The bill passed unanimously in the Senate on Tuesday after earlier passing the House in a 100-2 vote.

The Senate also passed House Bill 536 on Tuesday, which would require police to intervene if they see a fellow officer abusing someone, or else face possible criminal charges themselves. It won unanimous support in both chambers.

Some departments in North Carolina already have similar "duty to intervene" rules, including a few like Charlotte and Fayetteville that passed them in response to George Floyd's murder by a police officer in Minnesota last year. There are hundreds of law enforcement agencies in North Carolina, though, and this bill would make "duty to intervene" rules mandatory in all of them.

Brandon Garrett, a law professor who is director of Duke University Law School's Wilson Center for Science and Justice and who says criminal justice laws need to be reformed, was pleased to see the legislature pass so many changes.

And voters of both parties will probably agree, he said.

"There's a lot of consensus on the left and the right that the system needs to be more fair," Garrett said. "... There's differences of opinion in how to accomplish those goals, but the goals themselves have broad support."

Also sent to Cooper's desk Tuesday was a change to juvenile justice rules, likely making it so that North Carolina will no longer be the only state in the country that explicitly allows children as young as 6 to be brought to court. The Democratic governor had supported raising the age to 12. The Republican-led legislature, in Senate Bill 207, made the cutoff either 8 or 10 depending on the offense.

That and the two bills focused on tracking or stopping police abuse are the latest salvo in a series of criminal justice efforts with bipartisan support at the legislature.

"This is what people want in North Carolina," Charlotte Sen. Mujtaba Mohammed, a Democrat involved in the bill negotiations, said in an interview. "They want us to solve real issues instead of getting bogged down in partisan fights."

Protests led to change

In 2019, bipartisan groups of lawmakers filed one bill to help nonviolent drug offenders avoid lengthy mandatory minimum sentences in certain cases, and another bill to loosen the rules for expunging criminal records. Both passed the Senate but then went nowhere in the House — until the next year, when Black Lives Matter protesters took to the streets by the thousands to demand change.

In Raleigh, the first major 2020 Black Lives Matter protest following Floyd's death was on May 30. Less than a month later, both those bills had been revived, passed unanimously and signed into law by Cooper.

Garrett said public support for a more accountable and less punitive criminal justice system has been increasing in recent years, largely because of a growing sense that policies of mass incarceration don't work. The protests in 2020 galvanized that, he said, leading many politicians to support changes they had not previously embraced.

"There's been a growing movement to rethink how we police," he said.

Britt's bill with new databases to track police misconduct is a prime example, Garrett said, adding that very few other states have anything similar.

A month into the protests last year, as they were still drawing large crowds, The N&O reported that some prominent activists were excited, yet still skeptical about what would come of the protests in the long run. Cooper had just announced he was creating a task force to study criminal justice issues, and GOP lawmakers would later announce a task force of their own.

Taari Coleman, from the group NC BORN, told The N&O in late June of 2020 that "we understand that words are powerful, but action and movement is what really, really matters."

Around 14 months later, as the legislature passed the police and juvenile justice bills Tuesday, Britt told reporters that North Carolina Republicans have accomplished more on the criminal justice front since 2011 than Democrats ever did when they controlled the legislature for generations prior.

"We've done more, I think, in the last decade than what has happened in the 100 years before us," Britt said.

Garrett said both parties deserve credit.

" North Carolina has been at the forefront of those issues for decades," he said. "We were the first state to track racial profiling in traffic stops."

And Mohammed said most Democrats who are in office now want to go even further with criminal justice reforms than Republicans have been willing to support. He pointed to a bill he filed earlier this year, Senate Bill 656, called the Equity In Justice Act, which has not been allowed a committee hearing in the months since it was filed.

Some of the same proposals he included in that bill were also in Britt's SB 300, which is now on Cooper's desk — like creating databases to track police misconduct. But other parts of Mohammed's bill have not moved forward, like banning police chokeholds and requiring all officers to wear body cameras. Proposals from him and other Democrats to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, and expunge people's past marijuana convictions, have also failed to gain support in the GOP-led legislature so far.

But he acknowledged that as a member of the minority party, he can't expect to get everything he wants passed. And he credited Republicans for working with Democrats on the reform bills that have passed.

"After the murder of George Floyd, I think there was a bipartisan effort with people wanting more transparency and accountability when it comes to policing," Mohammed said.

What's next?

Earlier this month lawmakers passed additional changes making it easier for people to expunge past criminal records if they have not re-offended, building on an expunction bill they passed in 2020. Cooper signed both the 2020 and 2021 versions of that bill into law.

Mohammed said he hopes Cooper will also sign the bills that made it to his desk Tuesday. But even once all that is done, the legislature's work on criminal justice issues is not necessarily over for the year.

A bill to ban prisons and jails from shackling pregnant inmates, pitched in part as a pro-life measure, has been moving forward with broad support. Both the House and Senate have passed slightly different versions, and a final version could be sent to Cooper soon. And a bill to legalize medical marijuana has won surprising support from Republicans this summer, at least in the Senate.

Britt said he also wants to see the legislature make substantial changes to the rules that currently force people to have their driver's license suspended for failing to pay court fines or fees. In high-poverty areas, he said, that is a massive barrier to people being able to get a job. Britt's home of Robeson County, he said, has 22,000 people with their licenses suspended — one in every four adults, according to Census data.

"You're almost always going to find that, in almost every family in Robeson County," Britt said.

Garrett also pointed to driver's license suspensions as one of the areas he hopes the legislature tackles. A bill sponsored by Britt to address it, Senate Bill 490, passed the Senate in May but has been held up in the House since then.

"There's so many people who lose their driver's license because of minor issues," Garrett said. "And it's a terrible thing to do, a terrible burden on the economy."

(c)2021 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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