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North Carolina sheriffs group recommends criminal justice reforms. Are they enough?

North Carolina sheriffs group recommends criminal justice reforms. Are they enough?

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All North Carolina students should be required to watch videos explaining how to interact with law enforcement by their junior year, a statewide sheriffs group recommends.

The recommendation is included in a new N.C. Sheriffs' Association report proposing statewide law enforcement reforms.

"I don't see how anybody could find it controversial or be opposed to educating high school kids on what the law requires," Eddie Caldwell, executive vice president and general counsel of the association. "That's just education."

But community activist Kerwin Pittman opposes the recommendation. Such a video could skew information in favor of officers, he said, and allow them to more easily violate someone's rights.

"It is sad that they would sink to that level of propaganda," said Pittman, who serves on the N.C. Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice formed by the governor in June.

The report outlines criminal justice reforms that the sheriffs' association supports and others, like changes in the current use of school resource officers, it opposes.

It recommends banning choke holds unless the life of an officer or another is threatened and requiring officers to intervene and report when they see another officer using excessive force.

Governments, including Wake, Raleigh, Durham, have approved those changes. They have became common across the country since George Floyd died May 25 after a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes.

The sheriffs' report also supports regular psychological screenings, steps to prevent rogue officers from moving from job to job, and creating a public database of officers who have lost their certification.

It also recommends improving, increasing and standardizing training for law enforcement and creating an accreditation program for local law enforcement agencies.

But the report rejects other changes that criminal justice reform advocates and some Triangle government leaders have sought. These include changes to citizen review boards, programs that put officers in schools, and outside reviews of fatal and near-fatal incidents.

A process already exists for the State Bureau of Investigation to review incidents, such as shootings by law enforcement officers, the report states.

The recommendations are meant to preserve existing good practices and make improvements, Caldwell wrote in an email.

The sheriffs also want to avoid certain "changes being discussed that, if implemented, would damage the law enforcement profession," he wrote.

The report recommends keeping state laws that require a court order to release dashboard or body-worn camera video and that provide qualified immunity, which protects officers from civil liability as long as they don't violate someone's constitutional rights.

Competing reports

Caldwell shared the report with the media last week, more than two weeks ahead of when the N.C. Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice is set to propose its own reforms.

In a joint statement, task force co-chairs Attorney General Josh Stein and Supreme Court Associate Justice Anita Earls said they were encouraged the sheriffs embraced some common-sense reforms, including additional mental health screenings for officers.

"We look forward to continuing to work alongside law enforcement and other policymakers to make North Carolina safer for all North Carolinians," their statement said.

Gov. Roy Cooper formed the task force in June and asked for recommendations to stop discriminatory criminal justice practices and hold public safety officials accountable.

After the task force makes its recommendations on or by Dec. 1, it will work to help implement them over the next 18 months, officials have said.

Task force members Rep. Marcia Morey, a Democrat and former Durham County district judge, and Pittman, a Raleigh community activist, said they're concerned the sheriffs' report is trying to undercut more significant reforms.

"I honestly believe it is a veiled attempt to try to circumvent real change when it comes to true accountability as well as re-imagining public safety," Pittman said.

Caldwell said the association is working with the task force and has two sheriffs participating in the discussion.

"We are also doing our own report to put out the issues that we think are important," Caldwell said.

If changes are made, Caldwell said, it will be by the state legislature passing laws and or through administrative actions with the police and sheriffs' commissions that oversee law enforcement and detention officers.

"So we will be working most closely with them to advocate for what we think is in the best interest of public safety in North Carolina," Caldwell said.

School-resource officers

Pittman appreciates the report proposing an online database of officers whose certification have been revoked, he said. He also supports improving communications about officers who move from job to job.

But the only recommendation he sees as progressive is a proposal to shift the transporting of people being involuntary committed to mental health professionals.

The report argues that school resource officers should stay in school because they can guard against school shootings and threats.

Morey, however, said others want officers removed or no longer able to press charges against students through the juvenile justice system.

"When we look at 40% of all our juvenile complaints come from SRO officers from behaviors in schools, I think a lot of people are having serious concerns about that," Morey said.

The association's report was created through a process that included a working group with 10 sheriffs along with association leadership. It was circulated to all 100 sheriffs for comment and approved by the association's executive committee.

The sheriffs on the panel include Durham County Sheriff Clarence Birkhead, Buncombe County Sheriff Quentin Miller, and Richmond County Sheriff James Clemmons, Jr. All were the first African Americans elected sheriffs in their counties.

Clemmons is also a member of the state task force.

Birkhead and Clemmons declined to talk about the report, saying Caldwell was speaking about it.

Preventing 'gypsy' officers

The report seeks legislation to ensure agencies and officers disclose their personnel history to certifying commissions and potential employers, the report states.

"'Gypsy' law enforcement officers are those who are hired at an agency, engage in some misconduct, are allowed to resign, and then move on to be employed at another agency without the hiring agency being aware of the previous misconduct," the report states.

Sometimes agencies are hesitant to share some personnel records due to concerns about violation of personnel or public records, the report states.

"It is an important problem that needs to be fixed," Caldwell said.

In addition, the report also recommends agencies disclose if a court official found an officer took action that impugns their credibility as a government witness.

Use of force

The report recommends the state establish a uniform definition of use of force.

It also urges renaming the Center for the Reduction of Law Enforcement Use of Force. Cooper ordered the SBI to establish the center through the same executive order that established the task force.

The name implies there is a need to reduce force used by law enforcement officers, the report states.

"While the work of the Center may ultimately reflect a need for reducing use of force by law enforcement, there is no data to support that need in North Carolina before the work of the center is undertaken," the report states.

SBI data shows 468 officer-involved shooting cases reported to the agency since 2010. None of the officers were found to have violated state law, the report states.

The association recommends renaming the center "The Center for Analysis of Law Enforcement Use of Force."

Dawn Blagrove, executive director with Emancipate NC, said that she has a problem with that wording.

"Because the SBI, which is an arm of law enforcement, doesn't find us to be in violation of use of force, and because the district attorneys that we elect all over the state of North Carolina never think that the police are at fault, so they don't ever bring criminal charges against them, that means they're doing everything OK," she said.

"It is so tone-deaf and so in opposition to everything that we've heard from everyone all across America in the last six months in this country," Blagrove said.

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