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Bipartisan North Carolina Police Reforms Signed By Gov. Cooper

Governor Roy Cooper wearing a mask and red striped tie in front of a podium.
Courtesy Gov. Roy Cooper Twitter

A bipartisan police reform package was signed into law Thursday by North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, emphasizing success of enacting provisions from a task force he commissioned following George Floyd's murder over panel recommendations left out.

Backers of the legislation, which received near unanimous approval from the General Assembly, say it will rid departments of derelict officers and give mental health assistance to others on the force. The provisions address law enforcement shortcomings during a time of national focus on racial inequity and the deaths of Black residents at the hands of police, such as Floyd last year in Minneapolis.

Law enforcement groups and state House members also made recommendations contained within the new law.

“We need to strive every single day to make sure that our criminal justice system works free of bias and racial discrimination. And we know that too often it falls short,” the Democratic governor said in a bill-signing ceremony outside the Executive Mansion. “Two things that I would want to say about the signing of this legislation. Number one, this is an important step. But number two, there is more to do.”

The new law creates a public database to determine whether an officer’s certification has been suspended or revoked. The state also will develop a confidential database that contains “critical incident information” about when an officer has been involved in a case resulting in death or serious injury. Local agencies also will be required to collect internal data on when officers discharge weapons or are subject to citizen complaints.

Officers and sheriff's deputies will receive psychological screenings and mental health strategies and training on ethics, the use of force and “minority sensitivity.”

After the protest following Floyd's death, “we knew we had an opportunity to make our criminal justice system fairer and better at keeping people safe,” said Attorney General Josh Stein, who co-led Cooper’s task force with Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls. “Today, we are meeting that opportunity.”

A change to how police body camera footage can be reviewed by family members also was inserted into the bill in direct response to the aftermath of the fatal shooting in April of Andrew Brown Jr. by Pasquotank County sheriff’s deputies.

At the ceremony, Cooper also signed two House bills that matched identically some language in the omnibus Senate bill. One addresses mental health training requirements. The other makes it an officer’s duty to report excessive force by a colleague and to intervene when they see it. They were recommended last year by a bipartisan House study committee.

Republican Rep. John Szoka of Cumberland County, who attended the ceremony, said this week these and other House bills "are important first steps to improve and support North Carolina law enforcement agencies.”

Absent are Cooper task force recommendations that for now lack broader consensus, like eliminating cash bail for nonviolent criminal suspects and reinstituting a now-repealed 2009 law addressing racial bias in capital punishment cases. One civil rights group called the Senate legislation “a missed opportunity” to address systemic racism within the criminal legal system.

Stein, also a Democrat, pitched Thursday a task force recommendation to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana. He said a disproportionate percentage of those convicted of such crimes are not white, even as white and Black residents in North Carolina use marijuana at the same rate.

Cooper said the task force’s work is not over. Kerwin Pittman, a task force member and Raleigh criminal justice activist, said the new laws speak to the truth that all lives in North Carolina cannot matter until ensuring the lives of Black people and those in other marginalized groups matter.

But these laws are “not the end-all and be-all for reimagining public safety in the state of North Carolina and creating that more equitable system,” Pittman said.

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