RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Gov. Roy Cooper announced a new task force assigned to eliminate racism in the criminal justice system.
During a news conference Tuesday, Cooper said the task force, called the North Carolina Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice would develop and provide evidence-based strategies and policy solutions to address the systemic racism within the state's criminal justice sytem while maintaining public safety.
Cooper said the task force is a response to the ongoing demonstrations after the murder of George Floyd, who was killed by former Minneapolis Police Department officer Derek Chauvin at the end of May. Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder in Floyd's death. Three other former officers who were present at the time of the murder are charged with abetting second-degree murder.
"George Floyd was not the first victim of excessive force," Cooper said. "Too many other people of color have been harassed, harmed, injured or killed. Added together, their lives and their stories have made this spotlight too bright to ignore."
Cooper acknowledged that within North Carolina and across the country, members of the black and African American community are disproportionately victimized by the criminal justice system--often unfairly. He cited multiple statistics, including that black adults, are nearly six times more likely to be incarcerated than white adults nationwide, and black men are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement officers. In addition, Cooper said that when convicted of the same crime, black men receive, on average, a prison sentence 20 percent longer than white men.
"These numbers are stark. They tell a story that black Americans have been living & telling us every day - even when there's no spotlight," Cooper said, acknowledging the trauma that incidents such as Floyd's death inflict upon the Black community. "It's important to recognize these numbers and identify the disparities. But it's even more important and challenging to do something about it."
Headed by North Carolina Supreme Court Associate Justice Anita Earls and Attorney General Josh Stein, the task force will include representatives from several state departments, law enforcement agencies, the North Carolina General Assembly, local elected officials, organizations that represent or advocate for marginalized communities, district attorneys, public defenders, and others.
"Taking on issues of race & discrimination is difficult and often uncomfortable. Truth can be hard," Cooper said. "That's why we need everyone...to weigh in and be committed to real change."
The North Carolina Police Benevolent Association was not specifically included on the list of task force members, however, they released a statement about Cooper's executive order, saying that many of Cooper's suggested actions are steps police officers in the state already employ, but adding that they supported 'any legitimate effort' to make the mission of law enforcement better.
In her comments, Earls said she comes to this work not only as an African American woman but also as a lawyer who previously represented families of victims of police shootings and excessive force claims.
Now as a member of the judiciary, I'm charged with upholding your constitutional rights, whether doing so is popular or not," Earls said. "I ask you to help us ensure that this task force makes meaningful recommendations for lasting change."
Stein echoed the governor's comments, adding that members of the black and African American community are more harshly treated in court, as well as in traffic stops and other encounters with police officers.
"Any sense of violence is tragic, but especially so when perpetrated by those sworn to defend and protect us," Stein said."None of this is acceptable. We have to make North Carolina a safe place for every person, no matter who you are."
Stein cited the energy of the current moment, saying, "I genuinely believe this time is different."
Cooper also said North Carolina Department of Public Safety Secretary Erik Hooks asked all state law enforcement agencies to review their existing policies, particularly the use of force, de-escalation, and arrest procedure policies. In addition, Cooper said Hooks asked all agencies to make sure they have a "duty to intervene" policy in place, which would require other officers to intervene if they see misconduct by a fellow officer.
However, Cooper's announcement was met with harsh criticism by Republican state Senators Danny Britt and Warren Daniel, who co-chair the North Carolina Senate Judiciary Committee. They released the following statement:
"Gov. Roy Cooper's task force is an exercise in political cowardice. It permits him, as he did today during his pre-screened press conference, to avoid taking positions on any politically challenging issues, instead passing off responsibility to his new task force.
"Conveniently, the task force's report isn't due until after the November election, allowing him to buy time during his bid for a second term. Gov. Cooper needs to lead, not make a mockery of the public and the press with barely-concealed covering actions.
"By contrast, the Republican-led legislature has and will continue to take action on criminal justice reform. We passed into law Raise the Age and are advancing the First Step Act and Second Chance Act. These policies are built on the idea that mistakes made by teenagers should not sentence people to a lifetime of missed opportunities, including housing, schooling, and good-paying jobs.
"What exactly was Governor Cooper doing during his 16 years as this state's top law enforcement officer, and his time before that as chair of the Judiciary Committee?"
Cooper was asked a similar question towards the end of Tuesday's news conference, to which he answered, "I led the effort to establish 'open file discovery,' which helped criminal defendants get a fairer trial in court, worked with community policing and helped to establish that along with police accountability, helped to fix departmental problems in the state crime lab to make things fairer for people in the entire court system, and this is a continuation of that effort to work for justice and fairness."
When asked about specific policy changes -- such as increased transparency into use-of-force complaints, Cooper deflected the question.
"This task force is going to tackle all of these issues and I think transparency will be at the core of what they do," Cooper said.
When asked again how he felt about increasing transparency into use-of-force reports, Cooper said legislation to that effect may include varying degrees of disclosure and repeated that both transparency and trust in the law enforcement system are important.
"As we listen to the cries of our fellow North Carolinians and work to better know their pain, we have to work together to rebuild systems that better strive to eliminate racism and bias," Cooper said.