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NC Capitol

Police reform bill set to move, without change in body camera policy

Posted May 4, 2021 12:45 p.m. EDT
Updated May 4, 2021 5:05 p.m. EDT

Raleigh police officers surround a police car while protests hover around them. One protester placed a sign on the car that reads: "Black Lives Matter, Hold Cops Accountable." (Photo from James Motter, Freelance Photographer)

— A package of policing and criminal justice reforms with bipartisan support will likely move through the North Carolina Senate in the coming days.

The bill doesn't change the process for releasing footage from law enforcement body-worn and dashboard cameras, though the key bill sponsor said Tuesday those conversations will continue as the bill moves forward.

That process is under renewed scrutiny after the Elizabeth City shooting death of Andrew Brown Jr. two weeks ago. A Superior Court judge ruled last week that, while Brown's family can see bodycam video of the shooting, the public won't see it for some time.

State lawmakers laid this process out several years ago, requiring a judge to sign off before footage is released. Some, including Gov. Roy Cooper, have called for the process to essentially flip: Instead of the public having to go before a judge and argue for release, videos would be public within 48 hours unless law enforcement makes a good case to keep it secret.

The change has been proposed, but it's not part of legislation advancing so far in the Republican-controlled General Assembly. That includes Senate Bill 300, a package of 20-something reforms that cleared the Senate Judiciary committee Tuesday on a unanimous vote.

Sponsor Sen. Danny Britt, R-Robeson, a leader on many of the criminal justice reforms that passed the state legislature in recent years, said the current process seemed to work in the Elizabeth City case. He couldn't say whether the judge's decision was the right one, but the hearing happened quickly, and both sides were heard, which is the law's intent.

Britt said he plans to meet, though, with members of the Legislative Black Caucus and other Democrats and that the state's body camera law will continue to be discussed. Senate Bill 300 will likely move through the Senate next week, but Britt said it could morph before final passage in the House.

"We're willing to talk about what changes might make it better," Britt said.

House and Senate Democrats held a press conference Tuesday calling for a raft of more progressive changes, laid out in 26 bills of their own, most of which won't move forward. There's significant overlap, though, between some of the ideas in those bills and Senate Bill 300, as well as with a similar package of Republican-backed bills moving in the House.

Several of those House bills also moved through committee Tuesday.

Democratic lawmakers thanked Republican colleagues during Tuesday's news conference for the changes that are coming, even as they pressed for more, including a shift in body camera policy.

Among the other proposals Democrats have generally backed that aren't in the GOP bills:

  • A ban on no-knock warrants
  • An end to life without parole sentences for juvenile defendants
  • Large-scale bail reforms
  • The legalization or decriminalization of possessing small amounts of marijuana
  • A new requirement to bring in a special prosecutor to review officer-involved shootings
  • A ban on law enforcement chokeholds
  • Changes in court fines and fees to lower the impact on poor people, including changes that would allow people who can't afford their fines to keep their driver's licenses so they can get to and from work

Britt's Senate Bill 300 would make a number of changes to the state's criminal code, and to law enforcement policies:

  • A statewide duty for law enforcement to intervene, and report to superiors, any excessive use of force they witness
  • Creation of a new database of law enforcement officer certifications, revocations and suspensions. Police departments and sheriff's offices would feed records into the database that other agencies would review before hiring an officer. The idea is to root out bad apples. The database would not be public.
  • A new statewide database of "critical incidents" where someone dies or is seriously injured by law enforcement. The database would not be public.
  • A new requirement to notify the state of Giglio or Brady letters, which are notices district attorneys send police departments when they don't believe an officer is trustworthy enough to testify in court. The letters, and the lists of them some district attorneys keep, aren't public record now and wouldn't be under the bill, but they would be cataloged at the state level.
  • New required training on mental health and wellness strategies, and a required psychological screening before officers and deputies could be hired
  • Creation of an "early warning" system to track accidents and critical incidents officers are involved in, as well as complaints filed against them
  • Increased jurisdiction for the State Bureau of Investigation in cases where law enforcement kills or injures someone, and for all deaths in custody
  • A new requirement for the courts to enroll defendants in a digital court date reminder system.
  • New rules requiring first appearances for people arrested on a misdemeanor, and a reduction in the time it takes to schedule that first appearance, from 96 hours to 72 hours

A few other changes are moving in other bills, including one to raise the minimum age for juvenile criminal prosecution from 6 to 10. That bill has already cleared the Senate and has bipartisan support, though Democrats said Tuesday they'd prefer the minimum be raised to 12 years old.

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