Governor Roy Cooper vetoed a bill Monday night that could have concealed the public’s access to reports on those who die while in police custody.
The controversial bill was approved by the legislature during a 3 a.m. session last month, igniting protests across the state. The bill came at the request of the Department of Health and Human Services and includes provisions unrelated to death investigations, including adjustments to federal block grants and an update to the state’s definition of developmental disabilities.
But an unintended consequence of the bill would have closed a loophole that lets the public access police reports when they are referred to the Medical Examiner’s office, a small window of transparency in North Carolina’s otherwise restrictive public records laws.
“Senate Bill 168 includes a provision to change the handling of public records by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner which could have the unintended consequence of limiting transparency in death investigations,” Cooper said in a statement Monday. “While I believe neither the Department of Health and Human Services which proposed it, nor the General Assembly which unanimously passed it had any ill intent, the concerns that have since been raised make it clear this provision should not become law.”
Cooper issued his veto just hours after the legislature introduced another bill that would have also repealed the law.
The law fueled already high tensions between police and anti-racist protesters, who have been marching in the city for weeks since the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. Last week, police arrested at least 24 protesters demonstrating outside the Governor’s Mansion.
The protesters were charged with spray painting a street and blocking traffic.
While the protesters come from several different groups, the “NC BORN” movement spearheaded the opposition to SB 168, says activist Kerwin Pittman, who praised Cooper’s leadership on the issue Monday.
“He chose the right side of history to be on,” Pittman told the INDY. “It is this type of progressive leadership that we will need, especially in dealing with bias in the criminal justice system and righting the wrongs of the past.”
The bill would have made death investigation reported to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner confidential. If a person dies in a prison or police custody, the family would not have been able to access the records.
Currently, death investigations become public record after reaching the county medical examiner.
NC BORN began protesting to seek justice for George Floyd, says Pittman.
Their main focus is “ending the abuses of the prison industrial complex, specifically through police brutality,” according to a statement released by the group. They viewed SB168 as a direct affront to their mission.
The House added the disputed confidentiality clause in its first amendment of the bill on June 24 against a backdrop of national protests calling for increased scrutiny towards law enforcement.
Raleigh State Representative Allison Dahle was the lone vote against the bill’s late-night passage on June 27. She criticized the process by which it was passed, noting that “the bill left the House at 7 pages and came back at 17 pages.”
“I did not want to vote blindly,” Dahle told the INDY last week.
Neither Dahle nor Durham Representative Marcia Morey knew why the provision to keep death records confidential was added to the bill. Morey expressed regret at this oversight, telling the INDY “we should not have rushed it through.”
When the bill was introduced in February of 2019 it aimed to expand the medical uses of CBD oil. However, over the year that followed its scope was widely expanded by legislatures.
Pittman says he was ecstatic to hear the bill had been vetoed. Last week he promised that protests would “go on until the bill is vetoed.”
Even with SB 168 scraped, Pittman says antiracist protesters have no plans to go home.
“This is a marathon. This isn’t a sprint,” Pittman told the INDY. “We could be out there a month, we could be out there a year but the point is we don’t get tired, we don’t give up—we continue to be out there.”
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