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Our Opinion: Sheriffs weigh in
Our Opinion

Our Opinion: Sheriffs weigh in

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Guilford County Sheriff

Guilford County sheriff's car in Greensboro in 2018. A report by the North Carolina Sheriffs' Association sought input from all 100 sheriffs in the state.

A raft of mostly sensible, proactive policing reforms proposed by statewide law enforcement organization are, on the whole, both thoughtful and constructive.

Yes, a few of the recommendations on the list may make you shake your head and wonder why. Or why not?

But give credit where it is due: This is a serious effort that involved a working committee of 10 sheriffs, three of them Black, and sought input from all 100 sheriffs in the state.

And it primes the pump for a critical and long-overdue dialogue in North Carolina.

Released last week by the North Carolina Sheriffs' Association, the report suggests a number of forward-thinking reforms that would improve the quality of local policing and help build better accountability and trust between law enforcement agencies and their communities.

Among those suggestions:

  • Prevent problem officers from hopscotching from one job to another, taking with them same troublesome baggage.
  • Create a publicly accessible database of officers who have lost their certification.
  • Provide regular psychological screenings of officers.
  • Mandate that officers intervene and make a report when they see another officer uses excessive force.
  • Shift the responsibility for transporting persons to be involuntarily committed from law enforcement to mental health professionals.
  • Ban chokeholds, except in cases in which an officer’s life, or someone else’s, might be in jeopardy.
  • Upgrade and standardize training.
  • Establish an accreditation program for local law enforcement.

Each of these proposals is thoughtful and timely, as the nation continues to grapple with the aftermath of the senseless death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.

In fact, few of the above suggestions are likely to provoke much debate.

But others will.

For instance, the report opposes removing school resource officers from campuses. Citing concerns that the presence of police in schools too often results in routine disciplinary matters being handled by police, critics of school-based officers think campuses would be better off without them.

As a result, they say, too many young people, especially students of color, wind up in the criminal justice system.

While that's a valid worry, making SRO programs better — which means properly screening and training SROs and providing clear guidelines on when and how they should be used — seems a better path than removing them.

This is especially true given the specter of school shootings and other possible threats from off-campus intruders.

Onsite SROs enjoy the advantage of already being there if a crisis should arise and being familiar with the campus and the students.

Until someone suggests a better approach, these officers should remain.

We do take issue, however, with the report’s endorsement of a state law that requires a judge’s order to view police dashboard and body camera footage.

As we have argued ever since bodycams came to Greensboro, this footage should be treated as public record and should be more easily accessible to the general public.

The report's resistance to more empowered citizen police review boards also is disappointing, if not surprising. Strong civilian oversight should be a key ingredient to effective policing.

The Sheriffs' Association report precedes another soon-to-come high-profile report on law enforcement reforms.

A task force headed by state Attorney General Josh Stein and Supreme Court Associate Justice Anita Earls is due Dec. 1.

Gov. Roy Cooper created the task force in June to make recommendations for increasing police accountability and addressing discrimination in the criminal justice system.

Is the Sheriffs' Association report intended as a preemptive strike? Probably.

The organization's executive vice president and general counsel, Eddie Caldwell, told The (Raleigh) News & Observer in an email that the sheriffs hope to prevent some “changes being discussed that, if implemented, would damage the law enforcement profession."

But frankly, we don’t care.

As Stein and Earls said in a joint statement: “We look forward to continuing to work alongside law enforcement and other policymakers to make North Carolina safer for all North Carolinians."

The point is, the discussion is continuing.

The more ideas, the better. And the voices of law enforcement need to be a part of the solution.

Y'all come.

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