More data, mental health aid in NC Senate police reform bill

April 28, 2021 GMT

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A retooled criminal justice reform package unveiled on Wednesday by North Carolina Senate Republicans contains new databases to discourage misbehaving law enforcement officers from remaining on the job and expanded mental health assistance for police and deputies.

The bill, developed during a time of national focus on racial inequity and police shootings of Black residents — one in Elizabeth City last week — doesn’t include the most dramatic changes proposed by Democrats and a task force commissioned by Gov. Roy Cooper. It also would create or raise penalties against rioters who cause physical injury or significant property damage.

But the measure, which likely will get a Senate Judiciary Committee vote next week, received endorsements from several law enforcement groups and the state’s local prosecutors. They provided input into the version presented to the panel.

“It is a milestone in criminal justice reform,” Fred Baggett, representing the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police, told senators. “It is a collaborative effort. It is a big step forward.”

Sen. Danny Britt, a Robeson County Republican and bill sponsor, said the measure also received input from members of the House, which would also have to vote for the measure before it could reach Cooper’s desk. One Senate Democrat disappointed with what’s not in the bill still was pleased with much of what had been worked out so far.

“There’s work that we can continue to do, but I’m glad that there’s a first step,” said Democratic Sen. Mujtaba Mohammed of Mecklenburg County. “We try to get what we can, but we don’t stop working.”

The measure would create publicly accessible databases by police and sheriffs’ standards commissions so people can find out whether an officer’s certification has been suspended or revoked.

The commissions also would create a database accessible by law enforcement that contains “critical incident information” about when an officer has been involved in a case that results in a death of serious injury. Some of that data would be confidential.

These records are designed to help ensure that officers engaged in misconduct can’t move from agency to agency without recruiters knowing about their past.

State and local law agencies would create “early warning systems” within their departments designed to spot trends of officers who often use force or are the subject of citizen complaints.

The early warning system would identify officers “when they are struggling,” Britt said, adding that the measure “would increase transparency, standardization and oversight of law enforcement.”

The bill requires police trainees or new hires to receive a psychological screening and for officers to receive training on mental health and wellness strategies.

Cooper’s task force, led by Attorney General Josh Stein and Associate Justice Anita Earls, made 125 recommendations in December, several of which are included in the legislation in full or in part, such as an officer decertification database. The bill also contains a task force recommendation creating a duty by officers to report to superiors the excessive use of force by colleagues.

Absent are task force recommendations like eliminating cash bail for nonviolent criminal suspects, requiring all police officers to wear body cameras and reinstituting a now-repealed 2009 law addressing racial bias in capital punishment cases. Although the task force took a more comprehensive approach to addressing racial bias in policing, the legislation directs that continuing education training for officers include what’s called “minority sensitivity.”

State Bureau of Investigation Director Bob Schurmeier praised the bill but also said his department would need more than 30 additional agents to handle the anticipated increase in its investigations. The bill expands the type of use-of-force cases the SBI would be routinely called in to review, including deaths and serious injuries in state prisons and county jails.

The measure would create a new felony for someone engaged in rioting who causes serious physical injury and brandishes a weapon or uses a substance like pepper spray. And punishments for rioting would increase if a person creates over $1,500 in property damage. Demonstrators responding to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May caused damage to downtown businesses and buildings in Raleigh and other North Carolina cities. Most protests were largely peaceful.