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Our Opinion: Police reform must start with transparency

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As stakeholders work to repair North Carolina’s criminal justice system, they should make Louis Brandeis’ famous declaration their constant refrain: Sunlight is the best disinfectant.

Transparency — from releasing body camera and dashboard camera videos to disclosing more information about internal affairs complaints — would go a long way toward discouraging excessive use of force and making police officers and sheriff’s deputies more accountable to the public they serve. 

Gov. Roy Cooper announced this week that state Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls and Attorney General Josh Stein will lead a working group called the N.C. Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice. While police commanders, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and civil rights advocates will weigh in for that panel, whose recommendations are expected by Dec. 1, state lawmakers are also getting in on the act. 

House Speaker Tim Moore created the Task Force on Justice, Law Enforcement and Community Relations earlier this month and tapped Reps. John Szoka, R-Cumberland, Kristin Baker, R-Cabarrus, and Howard Hunter, D-Hertford, to serve as its co-chairs. 

Both task forces followed North Carolina native George Floyd’s May 25 killing in police custody. Officer Derek Chauvin, a 19-year Minneapolis Police Department veteran who’d racked up 18 internal affairs complaints, restrained Floyd by kneeling on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. 

He maintained the chokehold even as Floyd complained that he couldn’t breathe. Three fellow officers failed to intervene and watched Floyd die. 

The needless death and its racial overtones — Floyd is black and Chauvin is white — touched off nationwide protests over police killings of unarmed African Americans. Following the demonstrations, organizers are calling for reforms ranging from better use-of-force training to defunding police departments and reimagining public safety from the ground up. 

In Minneapolis, a veto-proof majority of the city council has pledged to disband the police department and shift funding to mental health and substance abuse treatment agencies. Nothing so drastic is being discussed in North Carolina, but some leaders here share concerns about increasingly militarized civilian police who are often expected to be part cop, part social worker. 

The executive and legislative task forces’ first task should be recommending fixes to our state’s shameful body camera law that keeps police recordings hidden from taxpayers’ watchful eyes.  

In 2016, the General Assembly voted to make bodycam and dashcam video exempt from the N.C. Public Records Act. Only a person whose image or voice is on the recording has a right to review the footage — and even then, officers sometimes have grounds to deny them a screening. In order to obtain a copy of the video, citizens and journalists must file a petition in Superior Court, and a judge has to sign off on the release.

That’s precisely the opposite of how it ought to work. Recordings should be presumed public, and if police have a legitimate reason to withhold it, let them go to court to have it sealed.

Body camera use mushroomed when the U.S. Department of Justice offered grants to purchase and implement the technology following the August 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Then-President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder hailed the cameras as a police accountability tool. Making the video a state secret frustrates that goal, and we wouldn’t blame the feds if they asked North Carolina agencies to refund their grant money. 

Lawmakers should also require more transparency when it comes to the complaints filed against officers. Chauvin’s checkered past emerged within days of Floyd’s killing because Minnesota law provides more details on police complaints than its North Carolina equivalent. 

N.C. General Statute 160A-168(b)(11) requires government agencies to disclose the “date and type of each dismissal, suspension or demotion for disciplinary reasons,” but corrective action that falls short of a firing, demotion or formal suspension takes place outside the public eye. If an officer’s assigned to complete special training or switched from patrol to desk duty due to a substantiated complaint, you should have the right to know about it. 

The tandem task forces may propose dozens of good ideas that will surface as bills in the 2021 legislative session. But lawmakers can do something to make government more transparent and more accountable today. 

House Bill 1111 seeks to place the Sunshine Amendment on your general election ballot in November. The proposed amendment would enshrine open government principles in the N.C. Constitution and require a two-thirds supermajority vote to repeal any public records or open meetings laws, including those the General Assembly may enact in the future. 

Passing the Sunshine Amendment today could set the stage for substantive police reforms tomorrow.