State News

NC sheriffs push training, mental health screening in report

Posted November 10, 2020 2:40 p.m. EST
Updated November 11, 2020 9:00 p.m. EST

— The association representing North Carolina's 100 sheriffs recommends expanding training, providing regular mental health screenings for deputies and closing loopholes that could make it difficult to move those involved in on-the-job misconduct out of law enforcement.

The North Carolina Sheriffs' Association on Tuesday released a report on “law enforcement professionalism” developed by more than a dozen sheriffs in the months following the May death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody and demonstrations against racial injustice across the country.

The recommendations “are in an effort to create a law enforcement profession that will not tolerate racism and excessive force by law enforcement, and that will hold North Carolina law enforcement to a high standard,” reads the introduction of the 31-page report, which was circulated to all sheriffs for review before approval last month by the association's executive committee.

The report urges all law enforcement agencies to set policies barring the use of chokeholds except in narrow, threatening situations. Floyd died as an officer kneeled on his neck. The sheriffs also want legislation passed by the General Assembly requiring the attorney general to develop a uniform definition and model policy on the use of force that also must be approved by the association and the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police.

But it recommends no changes to current policies related to school resource officers, the law directing how police body-worn camera footage is released and the doctrine of qualified immunity for officers in civil lawsuits challenging their conduct.

The report also calls for mental health professionals, rather than deputies, to respond to certain 911 calls, such as involuntarily commitments to a mental hospital.

"The sheriffs feel that it will reduce some of the stigma for the person who is being transported if they are transported by a mental health professional as opposed to a law enforcement officer," said Eddie Caldwell, executive vice president and general counsel for the association. "We certainly propose some additional training for law enforcement officers, but as much as possible, if these citizens could be assisted by mental health professionals, it would be much better."

The association recommended improving training standards that officer candidates must complete to enter the profession. Applicants should be required to pass psychological screenings before deputy certification and regular screenings at least every three years following, the report said. They also must complete crisis intervention training to be prepared for situations involving people in crisis.

"Having those additional resources would be beneficial to the officers and to the citizens," Caldwell said.

About two-thirds of the deputies at the Durham Sheriff's Office have completed crisis intervention training. Wendy Jacobs, chairwoman of the Durham County Board of Commissioners, said the county has other services to address mental health issues, including a special mental health and drug court, a 24-hour crisis response center in Durham, a free behavioral health urgent care clinic and a mobile crisis unit that responds to homes.

"We know that right now, there is a large percentage of our 911 calls where the root of the issue is a mental health or a substance use issue, it is not a criminal issue," Jacobs said. "We are going to be moving forward with a community safety and wellness task force that is going to be jointly supported by the city, the county and Durham Public Schools, and one of the portions of the bylaws of that task force is to look at the issue of how do we best respond to mental health issues, mental health crisis response in Durham."

The Chapel Hill Police Department has had a crisis unit for almost 50 years and now has four counselors staffing it.

Supervisor Megan Johnson responds, alongside a police officer, to a variety of calls, from mental health to domestic violence to child abuse.

"Law enforcement officers are tapped a lot of times with responding to certain situations that are better handled in collaboration with a mental health professional, and I think there are certain situations that have a criminal component, they also have a really heavy emotional component to them," Johnson said. "I think that there’s a power dynamic at play when you’re just in uniform in general, and I think that we try and lessen that."

The sheriffs association also want to prevent situations where law enforcement officers who commit misconduct – but resign quietly – are hired by another agency that isn't aware of those past deeds. They want a law mandating an applicant's former agency to release personnel records and internal investigative files to the department looking for a new hire.

A commission created by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, led by Attorney General Josh Stein and Associate Justice Anita Earls, and a state House committee also are examining whether similar law enforcement changes are warranted to address racial inequities.

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