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Key Takeaways:

  • North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper (D) recently signed into law (NC SB 300) one of the most comprehensive pieces of policing reform legislation recently enacted by any state.
  • North Carolina’s policing reform law contains a variety of provisions intended to increase police officer accountability, reduce the number of officer-involved “critical incidents,” and increase transparency of policing in North Carolina.
  • This law establishes a duty for officers to intervene and a duty to report by any officer who observes another law enforcement officer use force against another person that the observing officer reasonably believes to be excessive.
  • The bill passed unanimously in the Senate and by a vote of 100-2 in the House. These numbers indicate a degree of bipartisan support for the legislation that suggests it as a potential model for legislation in other states.

On September 2, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper (D) signed into law (NC SB 300) one of the most comprehensive pieces of policing reform legislation recently enacted by any state. The bill passed unanimously in the Senate and by a vote of 100-2 in the House. These numbers indicate a degree of bipartisan support for the legislation that suggests it as a potential model for legislation in other states. So what does this bill mean for those living in North Carolina?

Policing Transparency

North Carolina’s policing reform law contains a variety of provisions intended to increase police officer accountability, reduce the number of officer-involved “critical incidents,” and increase transparency of policing in North Carolina. Central to these changes are a set of standards for the hiring of new officers. The law provides for a new database, accessible via a public website, containing all revocations and suspensions of law enforcement officer certifications. Each officer in the state must be certified by the North Carolina Criminal Justice Education and Training Standards Commission in order to be eligible for employment as a law enforcement officer. Further, the law provides for criminal background checks through both the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for any person who applies for certification, or is certified, as a criminal justice officer or justice officer. These background check requirements also apply to criminal justice officers already employed by a law enforcement agency.

The law establishes a database of critical incidents, defined as “an incident involving any use of force by a law enforcement officer that results in death or serious bodily injury to a person.” It directs each law enforcement agency that employs certified personnel to provide the necessary data to the Criminal Justice Standards Division for inclusion in the database. Any information collected that would otherwise be confidential will remain so, and any officer who is reported as having been involved in a critical incident who disputes that involvement has a right to request a hearing in superior court for a determination of whether the officer's involvement was properly placed in the database. The law requires the collection of data on the number of officers in the state who have been notified in writing by superior court judge, district court judge, or federal judge, that the person may not be called to testify at trial based on bias, interest, or lack of credibility. Under the law, this information is not a public record.

The final notable transparency provision in the policing reform law amends existing state law for the collection of body camera footage to require the immediate disclosure of body-worn camera recordings related to death or serious bodily injury. The legislation establishes a mechanism for any such recording to be disclosed, pursuant to a court order, to a personal representative of the deceased, the injured individual, or a personal representative on behalf of the injured individual.

Duties to Intervene & Report

This law establishes a duty for officers to intervene and a duty to report by any officer who observes another law enforcement officer use force against another person that the observing officer reasonably believes to be excessive. In such a circumstance, the officer is required, if given a reasonable opportunity, to attempt to intervene to prevent the use of excessive force. Further, the observing officer will be required to report the incident to a superior law enforcement officer within the agency of the observing officer, even if the observing officer did not have a reasonable opportunity to intervene. Lawmakers have enacted similar laws this year in Wisconsin (WI SB 120), D.C. (DC B 311), Colorado (CO HB 1250), Oregon (OR HB 2929), Washington (WA SB 5051/HB 1082), and Vermont (VT HB 145). 

Additional Provisions

Another addition to police officer hiring practices under the policing reform law is a psychological screening. Under the law, each prospective officer will be required to undergo a face-to-face, in-person interview conducted by a licensed psychologist to determine the officer's psychological suitability to properly fulfill the responsibilities of the job. Lawmakers in other states have introduced similar legislation, including Florida (FL HB 505, SB 992), New York (NY AB 6641), and Hawaii (HI SB 532/HB 428). 

The law mandates certain new training for officers. Each officer will be required to take part in training to increase awareness of effective mental health and wellness strategies for criminal justice officers. Officers will also receive instruction on ethics, community policing, minority sensitivity, use of force, and the duty to intervene and report.

Conclusion

North Carolina’s policing reform law has the potential to be a test case not only of the policies outlined above but also for the politics of policing reform in other states. If the policing reform provisions of the law prove to be an effective deterrent against violence between police and civilians, it may pave the way for a flurry of similar legislation, regardless of the partisan makeup of a state’s legislature.