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Gov. Cooper Unveils Criminal Justice Panel To Address Racial Bias

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper sits for an interview with WUNC in the Executive Mansion in Raleigh, N.C., Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018. Cooper addressed the opiod crisis affecting the state.
Ben McKeown

Calling George Floyd's death a "defining moment" for justice reform, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper announced the creation of a panel on Tuesday to recommend ways to reform police, prosecutor and judicial conduct with an eye toward ending racial disparities.

Cooper said the North Carolina Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice will be led by Attorney General Josh Stein and Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls, with the goal of carrying out concepts already in the public domain and tailoring them to the state.

Floyd, a North Carolina native, was a handcuffed black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into his neck as he pleaded for air. His death prompted massive demonstrations across the country and around the world.

Cooper, himself the attorney general for 16 years, said Floyd's death highlights data showing African Americans are many times more likely to be incarcerated than white adults and are more likely to be killed by law enforcement.

"Too many other people of color have been harassed, harmed, injured or killed," the Democratic governor said at a media briefing. "Added together, their lives and their stories have made this spotlight too bright to ignore."

The 25-member task force will include elected officials, prosecutors and defenders, judges, victim and civil rights advocates and law enforcement. It's expected to focus on the use of force, community policing, alternatives to arrests, pretrial release and the use of fines and fees on defendants.

Earls, a former civil rights lawyer whose clients included family members of victims in police shootings, said "we must change how the criminal justice system operates and without delay." She pointed to public support to train police on de-escalation, for officers to wear body cameras and to bar the use of chokeholds on suspects.

"We have to make North Carolina a safe place for every person no matter who you are," Stein said. Cooper's executive order also creates a center within the State Bureau of Investigation to track statistics on the use of deadly force by police and to improve training in such action.

A pair of Republicans in the state Senate criticized Cooper's decision to create the panel, saying it will allow him to avoid taking positions on tough issues during his fall reelection campaign. The recommendations aren't due until Dec. 1.

Cooper's task force "is an exercise in political cowardice," GOP Sens. Warren Daniel of Burke County and Danny Britt of Robeson County said in a news release. Stein and Earls are registered Democrats. Stein is also on the November ballot.

Daniel and Britt are primary sponsors of a measure that will allow more people convicted of nonviolent misdemeanors and low-grade felonies to have their criminal records wiped clean. The "Second Chance Act" cleared a House committee on Tuesday after Democrats urged this week that it be heard again.

House Speaker Tim Moore, a Republican, announced a task force last week on justice and law enforcement issues in light of Floyd's death. It will meet after this year's legislative session.

Cooper's task force was announced the same day that his public safety secretary directed the Highway Patrol, Alcohol Law Enforcement and other state police agencies review their use-of-force guidelines and arrest procedures. They also must look at cultural sensitivity training and ensure officers know they have a duty to report officer abuse of a suspect and to intervene, Secretary Erik Hooks wrote.

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