Despite calls for reform after George Floyd's death, no significant laws have been passed in NC

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Thousands of North Carolinians took to the streets demanding criminal justice reform following George Floyd's death on May 25, 2020. A year later, those cries for change have not translated into significant laws passed at the state level.

"We're making progress. We're making slow progress," said Sen. Mujtaba Mohammed, D- Mecklenburg. "I wish it would at a faster rate and much more robust and bold, because, like you saw in the case of George Floyd, like you've seen cases of Breanna Taylor, like you've seen cases with Andrew Brown Jr., real lives are at stake and that's critical."

In the year since Floyd's death, 50 states have introduced legislation targeting the criminal justice system, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), an organization that tracks state legislation.

Despite the immediate nationwide action, only half of the state has actually passed significant legislation, according to NCSL.

North Carolina falls in the group still lacking action with NCSL reporting around 50 pending police-related bills.

"We were dealing with thousands and thousands and thousands of people who were out of work, we were dealing with businesses that were shut down, so you know the focus of the General Assembly over the past year has been mainly related to that," said Sen. Danny Earl Britt Jr., R-Robeson.

Britt also explained that there wasn't an opportunity for legislators to consider bills filed after Floyd's death until recently.

"To say there's a gap without a lot of major criminal justice reform, I think would be not taking into account all the other variables that are required for us to pass a law you can't simply file a bill during short session, move it during short session," Britt said.

In the past year, both Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and NC House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, created task forces to examine the state's criminal justice system.

Those discussions have led to lawmakers filing dozens of bills filed in the past year. The bills focus mainly on accountability and transparency from law enforcement agencies. The topics including training, body cameras, discipline databases and bail.

Numerous bills received approval this month by part of the General Assembly.

In the House, representatives approving bills that would require officers to intervene and report excessive use of force, requires psychological screenings for officers and provide mental health resources. Other bills passed would enhance agencies' hiring procedures.

Many of these topics rolled into Senate Bill 300 that North Carolina senators unanimously passed two weeks ago.

Britt is the primary sponsor of Senate Bill 300 and is hopeful it will become law.

"If the bill passes, there may be some other things that we need to talk about. Right now, I think Senate Bill 300 does a pretty good job of tackling all the areas that I think we need to really look at now to look at protecting our good police but also weeding out any bad apples," Britt said.

The bill tackles a multitude of criminal justice reform issues including creating databases for use of force incidents and officers' discipline records, requiring officers to intervene on excessive use of force, expanding training, shorting the timeline for body camera footage release to victims' families.

"I wanted to make sure I was involved in formulating those policies that would be able to assist law enforcement, while not inhibiting law enforcement, and that is why I thought it was so important to get all those stakeholder groups at the table," Britt said.

Fred Baggett said the N.C. Association of Chiefs of Police supports the bill and other action some lawmakers are considering but reminds legislators that targeting police is only part of the solution.

"Law enforcement is seriously looking at itself and that's a good thing. But remember that law enforcement must deal with issues because no one else is dealing with them," Baggett said.

He explained police have become the default for handling mental health, poverty and drug abuse.

"I think we certainly can improve law enforcement, but the fundamental problems as long as they exist, and increase, there will be more interaction with law enforcement. Statistically, thousands of interactions with law enforcement, with people with problems are going to result in more unfortunate events," Baggett said. "We want to do both but we need help dealing with the societal issues appropriately."

Mohammed said he understands this. The Mecklenburg lawmaker served on Cooper's task force that made 125 recommendations to improve all aspects of the criminal justice system. He has filed multiple bills off of these recommendations.

"We've got to be able to make sure we're supporting our law enforcement as well. And the way we do that is making sure we approach the issues that affect people across North Carolina in a holistic way," Mohammed said.

Part of that holistic change is occurring faster at the local level. Many local governments have formed citizen review boards and started conversations while local police agencies have internally reviewed their own policies.

"What you can see a lot of times the changes that you saw immediately are done at that police force level, at the city level, at the municipal level, at the county level, and then the broader changes that you see happen at the state level, take a little time," said Sen. Kirk DeViere, D-Cumberland.

DeViere said he continues to talk to advocates regularly to remind them that the process moves slowly but their actions were an important step.

"Unfortunately, it's a process and helping them understand that change sometimes doesn't happen quickly, but it happens when we stay consistent when we stay focused on what we're trying to do," DeViere said.

As many wait for their demands to translate into laws, Mohammed said lawmakers are continuing to listen.

"It's because of their protests, it's because of their outcries, it's because of the tears that they shed, it's because of their frustration their anger and their participation in our democratic process that not only in states like North Carolina, we're beginning to see some sort of progress in the justice system, but we're beginning to see that progress in a number of states and I'm hopeful for that," Mohammed said.
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