News, Policing

“Economic Terrorism” bill dies in committee

A bill that would have stiffened penalties for certain types of protest died in committee Tuesday.

By a 6-5 vote, the members of the N.C. House Judiciary II committee chose not to send House Bill 249 – the “Economic Terrorism” bill – to the full House for a vote.

The bill would have created a new category of offense – “economic terrorism.” It would have included forms of protest that “intimidates the civilian population,” or “seeks to influence, through intimidation,” local, state or federal government bodies and which “impedes or disrupts the regular course of business” and does damage of at least $1,000. Under the bill the category of crime would have been a Class H felony with a sentence of four to 25 months.

Protesters who committed lesser offenses would have faced heavier charges under the bill as well. Those blocking roads while part of a “riot or other unlawful assembly” would have faced Class A1 misdemeanor charges and could have been civilly liable  for costs involved in responding.

Those participating in passive sit-in protests now face second degree trespassing charges – but under the bill even they would have faced stiffer Class 1 Misdemeanor charges.

Bill sponsors Rep. John Torbett (R-Gaston) and John Blust (R-Guilford) said the bill was primarily inspired by mass demonstrations in Charlotte last year after the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott.

“This bill does not get rid of any freedom of speech,” Torbett said.  “It does not remove your lawful right to protest. It does not remove any lawful right to demonstrate against things you might think need to be demonstrated against.”

Torbett acknowledged that most of the already illegal behaviors described in the bill are covered by existing laws, but said he felt the need to “ratchet up” penalties because of an increase in the number and intensity of protests.

That led critics to ask whether the real target of the bill were protests like those over the controversial House Bill 2 and the continuing Moral Monday protests, both of which have featured sit-ins and have seen demonstrators arrested in the capitol.

“What you have here is a direct threat to civil liberties – the freedoms of speech and assembly – of everyone in this country, on the one side and the other side, ” said Rep. Henry Michaux (D-Durham).

Michaux said that during the heyday of the Civil Rights movement he was guilty of all of the things outlined in the bill and that he and those who protested with him had faced the consequences under existing law for demonstrating for things in which they deeply believed. The only reason for making the existing laws even more harsh toward protesters is to create a chilling effect on protest itself, Michaux said. Seeking to do that while doing nothing to protect the rights of protesters who have already faced abuse is unconscionable, he said.

“This bill that you have here is a piece of abomination that should be confined to the streets of hell forever,” Michaux said.

Republicans on the committee had their own qualms with the bill.

Rep. Chuck McGrady (R-Henderson) said the title “economic terrorism” was “unnecessarily provocative.”

“We just didn’t need to get into a discussion of terrorism in this age. We could have framed it in a different fashion and not had the reaction we had,” McGrady said.

That reaction included more than 2,000 e-mails against the bill, many prompted by organized opposition by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina.

McGrady said he believed existing law was sufficient to deal with most of what is dealt with in the bill.

Rep. Dana Bumgardner (R-Gaston) agreed, saying that though he too was concerned with violent protest existing law can deal with it — if it is properly applied. Failure to apply the law to these problems isn’t a failure of statute but a failure of leadership, Bumgardner said – and the overly broad language of HB249 was not the answer.

Speaking against the bill, Chatham County resident Vicki Boyer said the broad, vague language of the bill “could be used to shut down every basketball celebration that has ever happened on Franklin Street.”

Torbett and Blust were both agitated by the bipartisan resistance to the bill. Torbett said he could only conclude that those opposing the bill must condone violent protest and have no intention of addressing it — a comment at which fellow Republicans uncomfortable with the bill rankled.

“Maybe this isn’t perfect language, but we have to do something,” Blust said.

A majority of the committee disagreed that that something was House Bill 249. Failing to make crossover this week, it is – without a last minute resurrection as part of another bill – dead this session.


News, Policing

Greensboro columnist Susan Ladd on police brutality

Greensboro is one of many North Carolina cities that has, for years, been struggling with police/community relationships, cases of police brutality and – more recently – public access to records like police body camera footage.

This week Susan Ladd, columnist for Greensboro’s News & Record, takes a look at the case of Jose Charles – the young man of whose violent encounter with Greensboro police a member of the city’s Police Community Review Board says, “If we can’t see this one as wrong, we can’t see anything as wrong.”

From the column:

This week Lindy Garnette said what she had been thinking since she first reviewed the case of alleged police brutality in the arrest of Jose Charles:

“If we can’t see this one as wrong, we can’t see anything as wrong,” said Garnette, chief executive officer of the YWCA and a member of the Police Community Review Board. “If this case is swept under the rug, we might as well pack up, go home and call it a day.”

Charles, then 15, got beaten up by a group of other teenagers at last year’s Fun Fourth celebration in downtown Greensboro. He was using his shirt to wipe blood off his face when he was approached by a Greensboro police officer.

 After an oral exchange, Charles said, the officer threw him down, choked him and arrested him for malicious assault after he coughed up blood, which struck another officer in the face. Charles also was charged with disorderly conduct, simple affray and resisting arrest.

His mother, Tamara Figueroa, returned from a trip to the restroom that night to find her son on the pavement, bleeding from the head, with the officer’s hands around his neck. He needed eight stitches to close a wound over his eye.

Take the time to read the whole column.

News, Policing

Department of Justice to begin collecting nationwide police use of force data


The COPS division of the U.S. Department of Justice announced Thursday that 129 law enforcement agencies across the nation joined its Police Data Initiative. There are four North Carolina areas included. Photo courtesy of the Department of Justice

The U.S. Department of Justice announced today that it plans to launch an online database early next year to begin tracking all instances of police use of force across the nation, not just incidents that lead to death.

The effort is the largest federal undertaking of its kind but not unprecedented, and comes in the wake of numerous police-involved killings in places including Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Ferguson, Missouri; Charleston, South Carolina; and recently in Charlotte.

“Accurate and comprehensive data on the use of force by law enforcement is essential to an informed and productive discussion about community-police relations,” said Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch. “The initiatives we are announcing today are vital efforts toward increasing transparency and building trust between law enforcement and the communities we serve. In the days ahead, the Department of Justice will continue to work alongside our local, state, tribal and federal partners to ensure that we put in place a system to collect data that is comprehensive, useful and responsive to the needs of the communities we serve.”

The FBI has already begun working with law enforcement agencies to develop the National Use of Force Data Collection program, according to Lynch. The pilot data collection program will evaluate the effectiveness of the methodology used to collect the data and the quality of the information collected. For the next 53 days, all interested parties, including law enforcement agencies, civil rights organizations and other community stakeholders, are encouraged to make comments about the current proposal, which will be considered before the program’s implementation.

The program closes a gap in the Death in Custody Reporting Act, which requires state and federal law enforcement to submit data to the Justice Department about civilians who died during interactions with officers or in their custody (whether resulting from use or force or some other manner of death, such as suicide or natural causes). The law allows the Attorney General to impose a financial penalty on non-compliant states, but it does not impose a similar reporting requirement for non-lethal use of force incidents.

Anita Earls, Executive Director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said Thursday that the Department of Justice’s announcement is a positive development for communities and police departments across the nation.

“This should have been happening a long time ago, and it’s good that this attorney general is taking the initiative,” she said.

Earls, who was a deputy assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice for two and a half years, said a lot of non-governmental entities have taken efforts to track police use of force but that it makes more sense for federal officials to keep the information and analyze it.

She added that the Coalition plans to review the National Use of Force Data Collection program proposal and may take the opportunity to make comments if necessary. She said she would like to see the data collected on an individual officer basis because department-wide statistics can mask trends in individual issues.

The Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Office also announced today that it has assumed leadership of the Police Data Initiative (PDI), a transparency project initiated by the White House in 2015. Participating PDI law enforcement agencies commit to publicly releasing at least three policing datasets, which can include data on stops and searches, uses of force, officer-involved shootings and other police actions, according to the Department of Justice.

There are currently 129 departments participating in PDI, covering more than 44 million individuals across the country, including four North Carolina areas: Chapel Hill, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Kinston and Fayatteville.

Courts & the Law, Five Questions, News, Policing

Five Questions: Jonathan Jones on police video, open records

Jonathan Jones is director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition and an instructor of media law, ethics and media writing at Elon University.

In the wake of last week’s fatal shooting of Keith Lamont Scott by Charlotte police and the controversy over release of the video, we talked with Jones about the state of the law on police video, what will soon change and the reality of how public records law works.

Jonathan Jones, director of the NC Open Government Coalition

Jonathan Jones, director of the NC Open Government Coalition

It’s probably fair to say most people still don’t understand the massive change that’s coming to law surrounding police video on October 1. Could you tell us how it now works and what’s about to change?

Right now all documents, films and recordings dealing with public business by any North Carolina agency or government are public record. There aren’t any specific exemptions for video but there two exemptions often cited in order not to release the video  – the law enforcement and personnel exemptions.

There’s no real clarity at the moment on how far those exemptions go. They both probably apply to some police video, but they don’t cover all the video that is recorded. You’ve got a real wide variety of how local governments and agencies interpret this – some, like the city of Greensboro, absolutely believe it’s a personnel file that can’t be released without the officer’s consent. Others have not looked at it that way.

What’s changing in October is that all police video, not just body cameras but dash cameras – all police video – is being removed from the public record. If the police chief or the sheriff allows it, people who are in the video can view it. But if they don’t, people will have to go to court to see the video and they will always have to go to court to show it to the public – including newspapers and civil rights activists.

It looks like this is going to be onerous. It’s a wholesale change in how we deal with a big chunk of modern police records. And we know from the public records law that when you tell people they have to go to court to get something, fewer people do it.

Are the courts the right place for the responsibility of determining whether these things are public?

This law was shepherded by two former law enforcement officers. And you can see where they are coming from. Police chiefs didn’t want to find themselves in the position Chief Putney finds himself in down in Charlotte. They wanted to be able to say, “It’s not in my discretion to show it.”

If you put yourself in the position of the police chief, he or she is in a very tough position. If you release the video, you may be seen as not supporting your officers and not protecting them. That could harm morale.

But if you don’t release it, you run the risk of losing trust of the community.

If we’re going to take it away from the record holders, I think the courts are the logical place for the decision to be made. Every county in the state has a superior court judge who can make that decision.

But I don’t think the courts are a good place for it because it is very difficult for people to navigate these laws for themselves in court. I say that as someone who brought an open government lawsuit prior to becoming a lawyer.

Prior to moving to NC I had worked at a newspaper in Maryland and was covering a story in suburban Baltimore. It turned out a child had been molested and we were trying to get information about what had happened. I sought the records because the owner of this chain of daycares and after school programs was also the owner of a halfway house for people coming out of prison. He was letting people from his halfway house work off rent debt working at the daycare and one of these guys, who should never have been allowed to work around children, had molested one.

I had to go to court and argue my case to get the records. I lost. I didn’t know what I was doing. But I raised enough attention about it that the attorney general ordered the state agency to release the records.

Few people in any community are going to go through all of that to get the records that really should be public.

To your mind, how should it work? Who is doing it right?

A: Florida has some problems – more than 1,000 exemptions for their public records law. But when video is recorded in public, the expectation is that it’s going to be released to the public because there’s no expectation of privacy in public. When a video is recorded in your home, in a bathroom or anywhere where there would be a presumption of privacy, it’s assumed it’s going to be closed to the public.

I think that’s a much better way to handle the privacy concerns as well as the access concerns. That would cover a lot of the videos we’re talking about right now, like in Charlotte.

In the new law a line that jumped out at me is that access to a video can be denied if it might harm someone’s reputation. Isn’t that a pretty subjective criteria? Couldn’t that be read so broadly as to include harming the reputation of an officer – like one in Greensboro recently – who was found to have violated departmental standards but who has not yet faced charges?

It’s a very subjective determination. We do have, thanks to libel law, an idea of how reputations can be affected. But that’s not an easy standard to live up to.

In many ways it’s also a “get out of jail free card.” We’ve got this city councilman and he’s driving drunk and in his drunken state he says some embarrassing things that would harm his reputation. Should that be protected?

And the overwhelming majority of our officers are fantastic. But we do have officers who aren’t doing the right thing. Doesn’t the public have an interest in seeing that video?

Might we see the new law overturned? And if so, how?

A: The law, as far as I can see, is constitutional. I don’t see any challenges to this law put in place by the General Assembly being successful.

We’re going to have to live with it — and I think the folks who passed it would say give it some time.  Or we’re going to have to change it if we determine it’s not working.

I think the situation in Charlotte has highlighted the potential problems with this. And this isn’t going to be the last time.

I think the courts are concerned with how they’re going to handle this, whether they’ll get a lot of requests for video and that will suck up their time.

Often it only takes one person in a community to figure out how to do something and then they start making a lot of requests. Maybe there will be that person in Charlotte who just decides to become the person who does it for that community. Maybe there will be someone in every community who does.

But I don’t think it’s a good law, I don’t think it’s a good process. I said that to the General Assembly before they passed it. I hope that when they see this doesn’t work in the way that it was intended, we’ll see a change.


Statement from the NC Justice Center on the shootings and protests in Charlotte

Our hearts remain heavy in the wake of the shootings and protests in our state one week ago. There are still many things we don’t know about the tragic events in Charlotte. What we do know is that — regardless of specifics — the deaths of Keith Lamont Scott, Terence Crutcher, Tyre King, and countless others are too often a consequence of systemic racism, which results in racial disparities and inequities that frequently lead to communities of color being policed differently and denied both due process of law and full protections of the legal system.

At the NC Justice Center, we are committed to justice for all people in our state. Acknowledgment of the existence of community inequities and difference in treatment for people of color – not just in the criminal justice system – is the first step to reducing those racial inequities, whether they are in:

    • Education, where a disproportionate number of African-American children face expulsion and attend high-poverty schools;
    • Housing, whether it be historic redlining, segregated public housing, or other discriminatory practices;
    • Our economy, wherein an African-American male with an associate’s degree has around the same chance of getting a job as a white male with just a high school diploma;
    • Health, as people of color are more likely to go without health care due to cost and face higher uninsured rates;
    • And, indeed, North Carolina’s own criminal justice system where African-American men compose more than 50 percent of the state’s prison population.

Conversations about inequities are difficult and complicated, but that’s exactly why we need to have them. Allowing these destructive and divisive disparities to continue, as well as any discriminatory systems that encourage or condone these continued inequities, erodes public trust. That is why we feel it is important for us, and like-minded organizations, to use our voice and our resources to combat racial injustice and lift up equitable policies in our state.