Key bills involving police conduct and riots advance in legislature
Note: This story was updated on Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021.
Two bills closely monitored by police and civil rights activists alike advanced in the North Carolina legislature last week:
- One would create stiffer penalties and longer sentences for rioting.
- The other would make it more difficult for police officers with checkered pasts to find work.
Why it matters: Police reform and protesters’ rights were the dominant issue of the 2020 demonstrations after the murder of George Floyd, and the legislature has spent the better part of 2021 drafting and revising and debating language in bills designed to address both at once.
Details: State House speaker Tim Moore’s HB 805, which passed the House in May and the Senate last week, would make it a more serious felony to assault and emergency responder in a riot.
- It would also make it a Class H felony (punishable from 4 to 25 months) to brandish a weapon during a riot.
- And it would give property owners the right to sue a rioter for three times the damage sustained to the property.
State Sen. Danny Britt’s SB 300, which is headed to the governor’s desk, is far more sweeping. It would create statewide databases that monitor officer histories, and it formally establishes a statewide duty to intervene, meaning an officer who sees a colleague using excessive force must step to prevent it and report it within 72 hours.
- Britt’s bill would also expand mental health training for officers.
- And it would allow families of people severely hurt or killed by police to request body-camera footage and receive a faster answer from a judge on its release, as WRAL reported.
Between the lines: Britt, a Robeson County Republican, actually had language about increasing riot penalties in his first version of SB 300. But it was removed this summer, and now all the anti-riot measures are in Moore’s bill.
- Why? Britt has been working on criminal justice reform for years, and without the anti-riot language it faces an excellent chance of being signed into law by Gov. Cooper.
- Moore’s bill zeroing in on riot penalties has drawn protests from racial justice organizations and is far more likely to face a veto.
Zoom out: Britt has been able to build bipartisan support for his recent reform efforts. He led the 2019 passing of the First Step Act, which allowed judges to give shorter sentences than mandatory minimums for some non-violent drug offenses; and the Second Chance Act, which automatically expunged dismissed charges to allow people an clearer path to re-entry into the workforce.
- By including body cameras and databases for disciplined cops in this bill, he’s again gained the support of Democrats.
- Britt and Senate Republicans still support all of the efforts to increase penalties for rioting, though, as their party-line vote showed last week.
- “It’s not as if we’re looking only to beef up certain criminal penalties without any consideration for some of the very real problems in the criminal justice system,” Pat Ryan, state Senate leader Phil Berger’s spokesperson, told me last spring in an email. “It’s quite the opposite.”
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