As NC leaders take steps toward police reform, some question improvements to transparency

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- North Carolina lawmakers pushed through a series of bills this year targeting police reform.

The new laws tackle changes from recruitment to training to data collection, but some say they believe they still fall short on improving transparency.

Part of one of the more comprehensive laws passed, Senate Bill 300, involves creating databases to track use-of-force incidents and officers' decertification at the state level. This will be the first time the information will be collected and tracked comprehensively.

"I think it's going to help us track what's going on. It's going to help us keep a tab on what's going on with critical incidents, but more importantly, it'll help us conduct an analysis on what we've done right and what we've done wrong; how we can improve going forward," said Damon Williams, North Carolina Central University's police chief.

Though the information may help officers, it will do little to assist the people they serve since the data regarding critical incidents will not be public.

"Anytime that there's law enforcement who want to keep use-of-force data directly to themselves, I have questions about ultimately what the goal is there," said Bree Spencer, a policing program manager at the Leadership Conference, a national nonprofit dedicated to civil and human rights.

North Carolina's Senate Bill 300 states that the public will be able to view the database tracking revocations and suspensions of law enforcement officers.

Individual agencies can also not make the information public. A provision in this year's state budget stated that no law enforcement agencies or other state political entities could create a separate database regarding critical incidents.

The state budget also forbids anyone else from publicly releasing information on disciplinary actions against officers, which could include things that don't lead to certification changes.

For Spencer, the shielding of this information means North Carolina falls short in improving accountability.

"They're responsible to the public and it's really difficult to understand how police can be held accountable, how police can be trusted if we're not able to see how they're engaging with folks," said Spencer.

Spencer's organization, the Leadership Conference, began tracking use-of-force incidents across the United States. She said across the nation there is a similar issue of new legislation failing to improve the public's access to information and data surrounding police.

"It's a really important piece of making change. And by not increasing transparency, I have questions about how trust can improve about how the public can engage meaningfully," said Spencer.

Williams, who also serves as the first vice president of the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police, said he believes the public should eventually have access to use-of-force data.

"I think we have to be able to conduct an analysis internally first, but I do think eventually having that data public would be beneficial for the public to understand what and how things happen," said Wiliams.

Williams explained he understands the importance of transparency but said police need time to fully investigate incidents and gather context around data and situations.

"I tell people all the time what we do is not secret, right? But what we do can be misinterpreted," said Williams.

The provisions to the critical incident database come after Gov. Roy Cooper's Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice pointed to improvements needed in accountability and transparency.

"A widespread lack of data about law enforcement actions makes accountability and change difficult," the task force's 2020 report stated.

The task force recommended a public database on officer discipline and decertification, revising how officer-involved incidents are investigated and broadening access to body-camera recordings to "increase transparency and rebuild community trust".

Williams said he believes many of the other measures passed this year will begin to have a positive impact on policing across the state.

Going forward, Williams said it will be up to all law enforcement leaders and agencies to collaborate and hold each other accountable. He's optimistic that policing will continue to improve.

"As a law enforcement officer, we're committed to making our profession better," Williams said. "This is my chosen profession so I want it to be the best. We've had our downs, we've had our moments that we had to reflect on, but I think we are going to be better in the end of that course of reforming."
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