Use of force incidents largely kept a secret in North Carolina

Samantha Kummerer Image
BySamantha Kummerer WTVD logo
Friday, June 19, 2020
Use of force incidents largely kept a secret in North Carolina
The way police officers use force is under scrutiny after more and more violent incidents are captured on video.

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- The way police officers use force is under scrutiny after more and more violent incidents are captured on video.

"When I first saw the video I was horrified, outraged, angry at what I was seeing," said U.S. Representative Richard Hudson (R-NC) after watching the video of George Floyd's murder.

Hudson's reaction is shared by millions across America who are now demanding action.

The ABC 11 I-team requested use-of-force complaints and reports from agencies around central North Carolina. While many agencies were able to share statistics on how often officers reported using force, they denied access to records that would reveal the details.

The Fayetteville Police Department reported 22 use-of-force incidents so far this year, 55 in 2019 and 51 in 2018.

The Durham Police Department's use of force and citizen complaint statistics are published annually in a report.

The department hasn't published a report since 2018, but found officers used force 72 times, down from 89 times in 2017. Officers only used deadly force in four incidents between 2016-2018.

Durham's report does show a majority of the incidents were soft hands techniques that led to an injury. Their policy states soft hand techniques can range from grabbing to holding to joint manipulation.

While Durham's report gives a little bit more insight into what types of techniques are being used, the numbers still don't give insight into the situation surrounding the use of force.

Agencies' use of force polices often leave it up to the officer to decide what force to use and when.

Most agencies have detailed procedures in place after a use of force incident occurs. Officers often need to a file a report for supervisors to review. The type of force used and if any injuries occurred will impact what needs to be reported and investigated.

WATCH: Many local police departments consider chokeholds 'deadly use of force,' but none specifically ban the technique

In the wake of George Floyd's murder, leaders and advocates across the country are calling for departments to take a look at their current policies.

Without details surrounding the incidents, there's little room for departments to be held accountable for their internal investigations around incidents involving force.

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This lack of transparency is becoming more of a topic following the death of George Floyd. The former Minneapolis officer accused of murdering Floyd, Derek Chauvin, was still on the force after nearly 20 complaints and two letters of reprimand against him.

North Carolina agencies are able to keep complaints and reports confidential because the documents are not considered public records under state law. Instead, the state considers the files personnel records that are used to 'document and evaluate' employee performance; not for the public. The same goes for any discipline records on file for officers.

"I mean, the police departments need to do a really good job of protecting the rest of us from bad apples, but also I think the public does have a right to know," said Frank Baumgartner, a UNC professor.

This isn't the case in every state. Twenty-two other states keep these records confidential, according to a previous investigation by New York Public Radio. Other states either limit the access to these records or make them public records.

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"I believe if you put the data out and sort of put that sunshine on police misbehavior, then either the availability of that data will act as a deterrent for police officers who may be my otherwise engaged in misconduct, or it can also serve as a policymaking tool to help us identify what needs to change or what changes might be most effective," said Dr. Casey Delehanty, a professor at Gardner-Webb University.

Federal lawmakers in both parties are hoping to pass a bill to increase transparency and training for police officers.

"These are public servants who have to be held accountable," said U.S. Representative David Price (D-NC).

Price is a co-sponsor of a bill that--among many things--proposes the creation of a nationwide police misconduct registry.

However, it's unclear whether the records will be completely available to the public. Hudson is working on his own legislation to address the issue.

"I don't know what the right answer is, but I know not having access at all is wrong," Hudson said. "Making it be searchable by the general public is probably too much as well. There ought to be some protection there. I don't know what that balance is."

A draft of Hudson's legislation includes creating a database of officers' records for police agencies to access before hiring a new officer.

President Trump issued an executive order on Tuesday to create a national database for police agencies to share between themselves incidents of excessive use of force. The database would track de-certifications, criminal convictions and judgements for officers' use of force, but only aggregate and anonymized data would be shared with the public.

However, the FBI already started collecting use of force data in 2019 to create a nationwide database. So far, no report has been published and the Washington Post reported only 40% of agencies have responded.

Locally, Gov. Roy Cooper was asked about making these records public in a news briefing on June 9.

"I think transparency will be at the very core of what they want to do. In order for people to have trust in the system they have to know how it operates and what is going on," Cooper said.

He also said the task force he formed earlier this month on racial equity in the justice system will be discussing the topic.