This story first published online at N.C. Policy Watch.
Black people were twice as likely to be killed by the police in North Carolina than whites from 2013 to 2021, according to the Mapping Police Violence Project.
Black people also accounted for more than a third of the 249 deaths involving law enforcement officers in North Carolina, but make up only 22 percent of the state’s population.
Slightly more than half of these 249 fatalities listed an initial cause associated with law enforcement’s use of force. A dozen originated from traffic stops and 16 involved a mental health situation or “welfare check.” Twenty-seven people were killed in situations stemming from a nonviolent crime, including drug offenses and warrant service.
For the deaths involving firearms, the majority of victims were not fleeing at the time of the shooting, data originally tallied by the Washington Post shows.
Although there’s no comprehensive national database for police-related deaths, Mapping Police Violence crowdsources several databases maintained by citizens and the Washington Post’s police shooting database.
Officer prosecutions extremely rare
Despite the large number of fatalities, officers are rarely charged in connection with them. Only four charges against officers were documented during this period—three involving victims who were white, and just one involving a victim who was Black.
In the latter incident, Charlotte Police officer Randall Kerrick was charged in the killing of an unarmed 24-year-old former football player named Jonathan Ferrell. However, after a jury failed to reach a verdict prosecutors dropped the charges. Kerrick later resigned, according to a WBTV report.
The only conviction during the period was returned by a jury in a case in which a white man died after being tased. Jesse Santifort, then an officer at the Kenly Police Department, was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
More recently, the Pasquotank County District Attorney decided not to criminally charge three sheriff’s deputies involving the killing of Andrew Brown Jr., a 42-year-old Black resident of Elizabeth City.
After reviewing the officers’ body camera footage, Pasquotank County District Attorney Andrew Womble justified the officers’ conduct—they fired 14 shots at Brown when he was driving away from them to evade an arrest—by arguing that they legitimately exercised their arresting power as Brown attempted to flee and used his car as a deadly weapon.
After a departmental internal investigation, the deputies will only receive disciplinary actions and more training.
The low rate of prosecution in North Carolina is in line with the national trend, according to researchers who studied on-duty shootings. Nationwide, 35 law enforcement officers were convicted of a crime as a result of these shootings between 2005 and 2019.
Steve Friedland, a law professor and senior scholar at Elon University, used to be an assistant U.S. attorney. He said a special prosecutor could change the culture of criminal justice, but there’s more to be done.
“We have an historical evolution of policing, which started with slave patrols and move to union busting and things like that over our history, So we have many different things coinciding in policing and what it needs,” Friedland said. “I think we’re at a moment in our history where we’re asking what’s the purpose of police.”
Friedland added that consistent racial disparities indicate widespread implicit bias in policing, from traffic stops to use of force.
One example is the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office, which a U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division investigation found to have exhibited a pattern of over-policing the Latinx community in traffic stops. The sheriff’s office agreed in a settlement in 2016 to commit to bias-free policing policies.
Despite officer training, bias persists
Despite the training, racial bias didn’t stop in Alamance County. In the aftermath of the George Floyd killing by Minneapolis police, the local community, roiled by a history of systemic racism, took to the streets and demanded the Confederate monument in front of the county courthouse be removed. But protesters were then prohibited from gathering on courthouse grounds. After the county settled a First Amendment rights lawsuit with the local NAACP and residents, the sheriff’s office agreed to conduct more implicit bias training.
The sheriff’s office held a four-hour session earlier this year, and will do so again next year, Michelle Mills, the office’s spokesperson said in an email.
Another lawsuit brought by civilians against Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson seeks answers and more accountability in such matters. While the lawsuit is pending in the U.S. District Court, the Graham Police Department and the sheriff’s office continued to receive criticism as some protesters suggest that racial profiling was still present in arrests as recent as May 2021.
“I think we’re at a moment in our history where we’re asking what’s the purpose of police.” — Steve Friedland, Elon University law professor and
former assistant U.S. attorney
Elizabeth Haddix, an attorney representing plaintiffs in both cases said that as community members continue to push for change in policing, the current elected officials in leadership positions have resisted structural reforms.
“The problems that their lawsuit seeks to address are still happening,” Haddix said.
Currently, police recruits must complete the 640-hour Basic Training curriculum before they become a law enforcement officer in North Carolina. The state requires sworn officers to go through 24 hours of in-service training annually.
De-escalation training was first introduced to in-service training in 2018, and was only covered as a subtopic of a training module on interacting with individuals with mental illness in the certification training curriculum. It will be expanded in the new basic training program in 2022, the state Department of Justice spokesperson Laura Brewer said in an email.
A “Task Force on Policing” established by the Washington, D.C.-based Council for Criminal Justice reported last November that “American police training is too short, uses ineffective teaching methods, and spends too little time on de-escalation, communication skills, problem solving, and scenarios officers are most likely to encounter in the community.” The task force identified setting national training standards as one of the five priorities for police reform.
The Council for Criminal Justice underscored four other priorities: establishing a decertification registry in cases of police misconduct; instituting mandatory reporting policies for officers to report their peers; promoting understanding of the trauma experienced by vulnerable communities; and enhancement of data collection and transparency.
Progress impeded by lack of local law enforcement diversity, outside oversight
Studies have shown that more use of force occurs when a law enforcement agency’s racial makeup doesn’t reflect the demographics of the communities it serves, especially when white law enforcement officers interact with Black civilians. This appears to be a common circumstance in North Carolina.
Policy Watch reviewed law enforcement demographic survey data and found that of the 94 local police departments and sheriff’s offices that reported data, 19—or 20 percent—had an all-white department of sworn officers in 2016.
When matching and comparing those figures with the county’s population, 21 sheriff’s offices with available data have a lower percentage of minority officers than their respective county population. The lack of diversity and representation is especially common in less populous counties.
Alamance County Sheriff’s Office had one of the largest gaps of representation, with 92 percent of law enforcement officers being white, as compared to the 70 percent white population in the county.
Pasquotank County is not listed in the law enforcement demographic survey.
After the killing of Andrew Brown in Pasquotank County, Gov. Roy Cooper called for appointment of an independent prosecutor, as was done in the Minnesota attorney general’s prosecution of police officer Derek Chauvin, later convicted of murdering George Floyd.
However, North Carolina law allows an independent prosecutor to intervene only when the D.A. requests assistance from the state. Womble ruled out this possibility when he announced his decision to close the investigation without charges at a press conference earlier this month.
“I’m elected by the people of the First District to do exactly this job,” Womble said at the news conference. “A special prosecutor, or outside counsel, is not accountable to the people of this judicial district.”
Many experts and advocates, however, disagree. State Supreme Court Associate Justice Anita Earls said recently that the police accountability system in the state is broken.
Earls noted the influence of police chiefs and sheriffs on the culture of policing in their offices. “You can create a police department that provides public safety in a culture that doesn’t result in unjustified police shootings,” Earls said.
Earls co-chairs the Governor’s Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice, which recommended reviews by special prosecutors as a tool to promote accountability in its report released last year.
That recommendation was, in turn, included in legislation (House Bill 532) introduced by Democratic lawmakers in April. However, the bill has never received a hearing in a committee.
“I think that the people of North Carolina deserve better, even without coming to any ultimate conclusion about whether or not the shooting was justified,” Earls said in an interview. “The fact that there’s no state body other than the local D.A., ultimately making that determination is not serving us well.’”
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