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State and community leaders hold listening session to discuss criminal justice reform

<p>The North Carolina Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice held a listening session on Friday, Aug. 16, 2020. The task force met with community leaders in the Triangle area to discuss criminal justice reform.</p>
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The North Carolina Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice held a listening session on Friday, Aug. 16, 2020. The task force met with community leaders in the Triangle area to discuss criminal justice reform.

The North Carolina Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice held a listening session Friday for the Triangle area to discuss issues and ideas for criminal justice reform. 

The task force was established by Gov. Roy Cooper in June and is run by state Attorney General Josh Stein and N.C. Supreme Court Associate Justice Anita Earls. It has been holding listening sessions for community leaders in areas across the state.

The meeting was also attended by many local officials, including the mayors of Raleigh and Durham, district attorneys for both Wake and Durham counties, the chiefs of police in Raleigh and Burlington and a judge serving in the state’s 10th Judicial Circuit. 

Stein opened the meeting by acknowledging what he called a “national reckoning on race and the criminal justice system.” He said the killing of George Floyd and the resulting public outcry has reshaped the way the public views racial inequities in the criminal justice system and in all other aspects of society.

He said Black people fare worse at every stage of the criminal justice system, from arrest and pretrial detention to convictions and sentencing, and that this trend needs to be reversed. 

“The words chiseled on the face of the Supreme Court are ‘Equal Justice Under Law,’ and we don’t have that right now,” Stein said. 

Dawn Blagrove, executive director of Emancipate N.C., spoke during the first half of the listening session, which revolved around reforms for policing and law enforcement. 

One recommendation she made to increase police accountability was adjusting a state statute that prevents the public from accessing information related to possible criminal actions of a government employee unless investigations regarding it are completed. She acknowledged the possibility of these records being used in retaliatory acts but said she believes law enforcement officers should have their criminal records made public because of their ability to use lethal force. 

Blagrove also said the task force should suggest creating an objective and independent body that is dedicated solely to law enforcement oversight, which should be entirely separate from all law enforcement bodies in the state. 

“The police have shown us time and time again they are incapable of policing themselves,” Blagrove said. “Transparency is necessary to build trust.” 

She also recommended a significant divestment from law enforcement, directing those funds to other community initiatives. She said law enforcement on its own does not significantly reduce crime and that police officers spend much of their time working on things having little to do with law enforcement or crime prevention. 

Law enforcement officials were also present at the meeting to provide their own perspective on these issues, including Durham County Sheriff Clarence Birkhead. 

He talked about the importance of changing law enforcement’s approach to the communities they serve. He said law enforcement officers have to work hard to make the move from what he called the “warrior mentality” to the “guardian mentality,” a move he said many across the country were struggling to make. 

Birkhead brought up the idea of community policing, which he said was a philosophy and not just a program. He said deputies and officers had to acknowledge it was their responsibility to build relationships with the people in their communities and acknowledge their presence, which presents a shift from the way police officers are presently trained. 

He also echoed the sentiments of previous speakers in stressing the need for increased accountability within the law enforcement community. He said that those at the top of the law enforcement ladder must hold everyone accountable. 

“Far too long, chiefs of police all across the country and police unions have not held officers accountable for their criminal activity, and that’s exactly what it is,” Birkhead said. “George Floyd was not the first and he will not be the last, but we have to hold these officers accountable when they break the law.” 

So far, the task force has recommended a ban on chokeholds, a mandate to intervene in and report excessive uses of force and that the Supreme Court directs judges to consider a defendant’s ability to pay before implementing a fine or fee, which Stein said was to prevent the criminalization of poverty. 

The task force will continue to meet with officials from areas across the state and will submit its recommendations to the state government on or before Dec. 1. 

@GMolero1 | @DTHCityState

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