A new bipartisan criminal justice reform bill was signed into law by Gov. Roy Cooper on Sept. 2, but the ACLU of North Carolina said it falls short of addressing systemic racism at the base of the criminal justice system.
Senate Bill 300 covers a slew of provisions that aim to standardize law enforcement processes, increase officer accountability and establish a new line of trust between the public and police.
S.B. 300 will establish minimum educational and training standards for law enforcement officers that must be met in order to qualify for employment. Additionally, every officer will be required to undergo two hours of mental health awareness training every three years.
A statewide decertification database that details officer suspensions and revocations will be created. The database will be accessible to the public.
S.B. 300 will also require officers to intervene and report their fellow officers if they use excessive force. Officers have 72 hours to report any instances of misconduct to a superior.
Though these reforms — as well as dozens more outlined in the bill — passed unanimously in the N.C. General Assembly, some advocates have said S.B. 300 still falls short of creating truly transformative change.
In a recent press release, the ACLU of North Carolina said that while S.B. 300 will make several updates to police oversight, it fails to address more significant concerns like transparency, police accountability and racial equity within the criminal justice system.
Daniel Bowes, director of policy and advocacy at the ACLU of North Carolina, said S.B. 300 relies too heavily on the idea that the failings of the criminal legal system are due to a “few rogue officers,” instead of centuries of systematic racism.
“(Though) some of (S.B. 300’s) safeguards will weed out individuals who clearly should not be police officers, I think that failing to acknowledge the culture of policing and the criminal justice system, (as well as) the history of it, has time and again been shown to never hold itself accountable in a way that would actually lead to healthier, safer outcomes,” Bowes said.
Bowes said one of the primary reasons S.B. 300 lacks transformative reforms is due to the influence of law enforcement agencies, such as the North Carolina Sheriffs' Association and the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys.
"The idea that you have this taxpayer-funded state entity (N.C. Conference of District Attorneys) being the single biggest impediment to bipartisan reforms is absurd," Bowes said. "That’s what we are really trying to highlight is how nefariously they are acting and sort of the good policy changes that they are preventing."
The N.C. Conference of District Attorneys is a state agency comprised of 42 elected district attorneys who offer technical assistance and research on legal issues.
Chuck Spahos, the conference's financial crimes resource prosecutor, said Bowes' claim was “hollow and unfounded." He added that the impact the conference has had on legislation has led to the passing of many substantive bipartisan reforms, such as expanding opportunities for people to have felonies expunged from their records.
Body camera controversy
The power that has been allotted to district attorneys and law enforcement agencies in the legislative process is not a new issue, Bowes said. However, he said that influence was exemplified during discussions regarding police body camera laws within S.B. 300.
The bill says police dashboard or body camera footage relating to death or serious injury must be disclosed to family members of individuals involved in the interaction upon request within three business days.
Law enforcement has the ability to petition the court to withhold or edit portions of the recording prior to its release to the family, a clause Bowes and other advocates take issue with.
Edmond Caldwell, the executive vice president and general counsel of the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association, said the bodycam videos are evidence that could be used in criminal investigations.
"It would unduly prejudice the defendant, as well as unduly prejudice the potential jurors, if they got to watch the video on TV or on the internet before trial,” Caldwell said.
Local enforcement of the bill
Caitlin Fenhagen, director of the Orange County Criminal Justice Resource Department, said that because the county has already instituted many of these reforms, the bill will not have as much of an impact on the area.
"I think the key to making Orange County different and moving these things forward in a much more progressive way than much of the state has is that (we have) collaboration and support from all of our stakeholders,” she said.
Different portions of the bill will take effect at different times, but the first batch of them will start to be enforced before the end of the year.