RALEIGH, NC (AP) – A far-reaching criminal justice effort that focused on weeding troubled law enforcement officers in North Carolina and helping others mentally was cleared by a House committee on Wednesday.
The measure found widespread support only after the deletion of a newly designed language that, according to proponents of racial justice, could make it difficult for family members of the victims to access certain body camera recordings taken by the police.
Civil rights groups and Democrats on the committee had criticized these changes to the measures when the Senate unanimously passed the law two months ago. A billing sponsor said changes had recently occurred following additional meetings with the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association and other law enforcement groups.
The proposed body camera language “is not endorsed by consensus and is harmful,” Daniel Bowes, director of politics and advocacy for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, told a House Judiciary.
Adjustments to body camera rules have surfaced after the April death by Andrew Brown Jr. in Elizabeth City by the Deputies of the Pasquotank County Sheriff. It took time and a court order before Brown’s family was able to see significant amounts of video showing how Brown died.
A wide range of groups from across the political spectrum have supported the broader legislation emerging after a year of national focus on racial inequality and police shootings of black residents, including the May 2020 murder of George Floyd held by Minneapolis police has been.
After speaking to Black State senators and others this spring, the Senate added language that would tell a law enforcement agency that they would see the unprocessed records of a death or grievous bodily harm within five business days of their request from the family or victim must leave. But the agency could still ask a judge before that happened to have them edit or withhold the footage.
Current law gives law enforcement a discretion to deny the family’s request, who could then go to a judge to request that the decision be overturned. Critics say this will force a family member to go to court – and likely hire an expensive lawyer – to find out what happened to their loved one.
But the House version has revised the procedure. The police or the sheriff’s office should have moved to court within five days of the request. Then the judge would hear from all sides and alone would decide how much footage, if any, would be available to the family.
Eddie Caldwell, the executive vice president of the NC Sheriffs’ Association, said his group had been told that it was vital in the negotiations to lift the requirement that family members file petitions in court. The newest language fulfills this, he said.
The wording in the Senate bill would have “enabled a law enforcement officer to deliver a verdict to be delivered by a neutral and independent judge,” said Caldwell.
Dawn Blagrove, leader of Racial Justice Advocacy Emancipate NC, said the language in the House of Representatives version would actually make things worse in communities where police shootings take place, as it would cause delays in disclosure by requiring judicial intervention .
“It is a monumental step backwards for law enforcement transparency and for victims and families,” Blagrove said, urging committee members to vote against the entire bill if the House language was retained. But the committee ultimately decided to remove these provisions before voting in favor of the measure, which now presides over another body.
Changes to the body camera footage could reappear in recent negotiations on what would otherwise appear to be a bipartisan reform of the criminal justice system.
Other approved parts would create a public database to determine whether an officer’s certification has been suspended or revoked. The state would also create a database accessible to law enforcement agencies containing “critical incident information” on when an officer was involved in a case that resulted in death or serious injury.
Police officers would have a duty to report a colleague’s excessive violence to their superiors, and officers would be given psychological exams and mental health strategies.