Missing the mark: North Carolina's police accountability bills fail to address systemic police violence and enact widespread reform
The state’s Republican controlled government struggled to pass police reform in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. Activists say the few bills passed focus too little on systemic racism.
When North Carolina sheriff deputies killed Andrew Brown Jr., a Black man, with five shots, including one to the back of his head, on April 21, 2021, the governor’s 2020 task force focused on racial equality and criminal justice reform had already delivered over 100 recommendations on police accountability, body camera footage release, cannabis legalization and more to the legislature. Brown’s death highlighted the urgent need for police reform in the state.
Less than a month after deputies killed Brown, a Republican-controlled legislature took only a handful of the recommendations and proposed just a few bills focused on individual law enforcement accountability. The bipartisan bills based on the recommendations encompassed a small fraction of the proposals and left out bans on police chokeholds, public access to body camera footage, bail reform, steps toward legalizing cannabis while ending qualified immunity.
A bipartisan bill motivated by the killing of Brown which expanded access to body camera footage for victim’s families was just recently rewritten after pressure from the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association, a lobbying group, to the outcry of Democrats and racial justice advocates.
Like many state governments, North Carolina talked big about police reform after protests swept the nation following the murder of George Floyd. But the low number of task force recommendations adopted to bills and the entanglement those bills faced from law enforcement lobbying groups and Republicans demonstrate the difficulty of turning social movements into real criminal justice and police reform in Republican controlled states like North Carolina. Some states have even increased law enforcement protection and passed anti-rioting bills that target protesters.
North Carolina falls in the lower half of the annual rates for police killings, but Black people in the state are still two times more likely to be killed by the police than white people, according to Mapping Police Violence. Nationally, law enforcement kills Black people at three times the rate of white people despite Black people being 1.3 times more likely to be unarmed.
Activists are concerned that a “bad apple” focus, where reform addresses individual bad police officers versus the larger law enforcement structure and role, does not confront the root of systemic racism and police brutality. Critics also question whether North Carolina’s individual police accountability bills will be effective without protection for whistleblowers within departments and with no reduction in qualified immunity. Legislation intended to protect whistleblowers in the past such as the 2019 House Bill 715 failed partly due to pushback from groups like the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association.
Republicans in North Carolina proposed bills in May 2021 aimed at increasing transparency in police departments and improving officers’ accountability through a statewide duty-to-intervene mandate, mandatory mental health screenings, measures to prevent officers with infractions or misconduct charges from jumping around to different departments and expansion of access to body-camera footage to families of police violence victims.
These proposals followed the 125 recommendations in December 2020 from the North Carolina Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice. The task force’s suggested ways to improve racial equity within the state’s law enforcement and judicial system as well as strategies for implementation.
The bills gained broad support from former members of the governor's task force, police organizations, lawmakers and criminal justice activists in North Carolina. Fred Baggett, the Legislative Counsel for the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police, expressed “complete support” for the recent bills, but he said he had no desire for further legislation, including that protection for whistleblowers in departments is “not necessary.”
Some see the lack of pushback from a Republican-controlled state as a sign that the legislation is not drastic enough to enact real change.
“I wanted to make sure that things on the agenda were things that could actually get passed,” Rep. John Szoka (R-NC), who co-sponsored the house police accountability bills, said. He was moved to act after witnessing protests in Raleigh last summer.
A former Lieutenant Colonel in the army, Szoka was particularly concerned with passing the statewide duty-to-intervene to protect “people from another George Floyd situation.” Military officers are bound by the Geneva Conventions to interfere if they see a fellow soldier violating someone’s human rights, and Szoka believes police in America should be held to the same standard.
He emphasized that policies to intervene in departments across the state were not strong enough. The personal awakenings of some Republican lawmakers did not change the political system they work within.
“Lawmakers have to start with mild reform [especially in conservative states],” Lauren Bond, the Legal Director of the National Police Accountability Project, said. But she is not convinced about the state’s approach: “By framing police misconduct as an issue of individual bad actors, policymakers are failing to undertake systemic reforms,” she said. In both the killing of Daunte Wright and George Floyd the officers who killed the Black men were also responsible for training officers. Derek Chauvin also had a long history of abusing use of force.
She points to reforms that focus less on training and individual officers and instead eliminate or reduce qualified immunity, which often legally protects officers who kill a person on the job.
“I can’t say the [North Carolina] bills will make a major difference,” Bond said. “I won’t say incremental reforms are useless, it’s helpful if we can save even one person from police violence,” she added.
North Carolina falls behind states like New Mexico, Colorado and Connecticut that limit qualified immunity, states like New York, New Jersey, and Virginia that legalized marijuana, and states like Minnesota, Nevada and Virginia that restricted police chokeholds. Compared to its southern neighbors where similar police accountability bills have been shot down by conservative figures, the state moved more swiftly.
“We have seen unprecedented recognition from conservative lawmakers that policing is in need of reform,” Bond said. And in some ways, Bond continued, “police conduct is being more restricted and monitored than ever before.” She pointed to “incredible progress” in some states towards the end of qualified immunity and to Washington and Wisconsin which both banned chokeholds.
“[This] wouldn’t have been feasible politically before 2020,” she said.
“There could always be more momentum,” Mary Pollard, part of the governor’s task force said of the slow pace of reform. Pollard is the Executive Director of the North Carolina Office of Indigent Defense Services, which oversees legal representation for people unable to hire lawyers in North Carolina.
“It’s still [the] early days,” she said, and stressed that more progressive bills — like ones that would address qualified immunity — are in North Carolina’s future.
Rep. James Gailliard (D-NC), a former task force, believes the bills passed this year, like the statewide duty to intervene, will be successful — not only with decreasing police brutality — but also in changing the culture surrounding police brutality and criminal justice in this country.
“It may have to be slow, but it will hopefully be effective,” he said. He is still adamant that more progressive reform is an urgent necessity and said he was disappointed that more recommendations were not taken up by the legislature.
Gailliard said criminal justice is still at the top of his priorities and he is confident that he is not alone, but along with law enforcement reform has come increased protection for officers.
Around the country, policymakers have enacted legislation that increased protection for law enforcement over the past year. In Georgia, the governor signed a bill that bans local governments from defunding the police. Iowa codified qualified immunity, effectively strengthening officers’ immunity and also increased penalties for crimes committed during protests.
In North Carolina, an anti-rioting bill was passed with the other police reform bills. It will increase charges and potentially fine people who engage in or present a threat of rioting. But people are concerned about the vague language defining rioting and worry it will become another avenue for police to abuse their power, especially against Black and brown people. Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, and Missouri have all proposed or passed anti-protest bills.
Increasing police protection is not an unusual reaction, explained Gailliard, adding, “especially, in such a polarized environment when parts of our culture have become anti-police, there are people who want to ensure that officers are themselves protected.” But this drive to increase protection while simultaneously reforming can cause a standstill. Gailliard calls the law enforcement lobbying groups often behind the blocking of these reforms, “our Achilles heel.”
Color of Change, an organization focused on racial inequity that impacts Black people, found that law enforcement political action committees have given a minimum of $55 million to Democratic and Republican politicians at the state and federal level.
The pervasive influence law enforcement groups and PACS have over legislatures may seem bleak to those hopeful for more progressive legislation, but there are people across the country fighting to end these groups’ sway. For example, Color of Change is leading an initiative to stop Congressmembers from accepting funds from the Fraternal Order of Police, the nation’s largest certified police organization.
When asked if there is still enough pressure for criminal justice to be a priority for state and federal governments, Bond said she believed there is. She is hopeful the George Floyd Policing Act, one of the most comprehensive justice bills to date, will pass in the Senate this year: a good indicator of how much energy is left at the national level for reform. However, Black Lives Matter activists proposed the much more progressive BREATHE Act, based on abolitionist beliefs, which has gained no traction.
North Carolina Democrats like Gailliard and advocates are hopeful of more far-reaching legislation soon. But if North Carolina represents the national average when it comes to criminal justice reform, there is no time to rest, especially when monolithic police unions loom over many legislators.
“Unfortunately [in states like North Carolina], it’s going to be very hard for anyone who wants to go further in reform to get the platform and momentum needed,” Bond said. As for Brown’s family, they just recently announced that they are federally suing North Carolina sheriff's department and deputies who shot Brown in the head as he drove away from them. The lawsuit seeks $30 million in damages for his death.
Abby Ilfeld is the summer 2021 research and reporting intern for The Des. She is a rising junior in a Dual Degree program between Columbia University and Trinity College Dublin where she majors in Political Science and European Studies. She has been passionate about writing and journalism for a long time and was an editor for her high school’s literary magazine and took classes at The School of the New York Times.
Abby continued working within the journalism industry in college as an intern for the Block Island Times and a freelance reporter for The Charlotte Observer’s magazine, CharlotteFive. She is excited to expand her experience to researching and writing about criminal justice for The Des, as she is extremely passionate about human rights and justice and is thrilled to contribute to an organization that promotes the abolition of the current US prison system and spreads awareness about pressing criminal justice issues.
Aside from writing, Abby likes to spend her days with friends, traveling, reading or baking. She is looking forward to living in New York City for the next couple years and plans to explore the city’s local bookshops and cafés.
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