Critics assert the legislation will make the police less accountable and hide information from decedents’ loved ones
A bill that the legislature passed at 1:01 a.m. Friday morning would keep secret from the public some records of law enforcement death investigations, and a chorus of activists, civil rights advocates and North Carolina news outlets want it stopped.
Now the matter will be "be revisited and corrected," said N.C. House Majority Leader John Bell, a Republican from Goldsboro. This followed complaints and a protest from activists who say it will make the government less accountable for deaths involving people in local jails and state prisons. It’s also under criticism from news media organizations that fight for open government records in general.
The measure drew attention as the country is wrestling ways to address police accountability amid protests, looting and rioting and the removal of Confederate monuments following the deaths of Black Americans during police encounters.
Notably, singer, actor and filmmaker Ice Cube on Twitter urged Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper to veto the bill.
"This is so dirty," Ice Cube tweeted. "You know most crooks do their crimes after midnight. Governor Cooper do not sign this into law. Don’t give more cover for Killer Cops."
Protesters gathered outside the North Carolina governor’s mansion late Monday and into Tuesday to demand that Cooper veto the bill, said Kerwin Pittman of the Raleigh Demands Justice activist group.
The Raleigh Police Department said on Twitter four people were arrested for spray painting the street. Video posted to Twitter by a CBS 17 television reporter showed what appeared to be "Veto SB168" painted on the street and officers carrying a protester to a police van.
Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said on Tuesday, "The governor will review the legislation before announcing action."
The provision was requested by Cooper’s administration and it’s a single paragraph in a 17-page piece of legislation called Senate Bill 168. The paragraph first appeared in two other bills in 2019, but neither passed.
The state House approved S168 by a vote of 109-1 late Thursday, and the Senate approved it 43-0 early Friday morning.
The paragraph states that information that a city, county or other entity provides to the office of the Chief Medical Examiner shall remain secret from the public if it was previously kept secret when in possession of the entity that gave it to the Medical Examiner officer.
The Medical Examiner office does autopsies. Its autopsy findings of a person’s cause of death, and its reasoning for its conclusions, have been public record. The conclusions sometimes include information provided by law enforcement. And law enforcement investigatory files are normally kept secret.
State Rep. Billy Richardson, a Fayetteville Democrat, was a prime sponsor of one of the two original bills that had the public records provision.
Richardson’s original bill had provisions to help the Medical Examiner’s office operate more efficiently, he said.
The public records section, Richardson said, was designed to protect homicide investigations records while their autopsies are being conducted, not block the public and media’s access to public documents. He intended for autopsy reports to remain available to the public as before.
Richardson said The N.C. Press Association, which closely watches public records legislation, raised no objections when the bill advanced in the House in 2019. He would have given consideration to questions had they been raised, he said.
It the bill is flawed, Richardson said, he wants to fix it.
"I will work with Rep. Bell. We’ll clear up this language very soon, very shortly," he said. "I want the public to have the right to know, not the other way."
Chief Medical Examiner Michelle Aurelius told a consortium of North Carolina news outlets that her agency requested the provision because law enforcement officers sometimes have hesitated to share information with her office that her staff needs to determine a person’s cause of death. Medical examiners can subpoena records, the consortium reported.
It appears that law enforcement had nothing to do with the measure. Eddie Caldwell of the N.C. Sheriff’s Association said he was unaware of it until he saw a news report of it on Monday.
"We don’t know the purpose of it or the effect of it," said Fred Baggett of the N.C. Association of Chiefs of Police. The association had no knowledge or interest in the bill, he said.
Critics of the measure are concerned the legislation, if it becomes law, will hide information from the public of police wrongdoing and of people’s causes of death.
"We shouldn’t keep it secret," said Kathy Greggs of Fayetteville PACT, an organization that advocates for police accountability. Family members should be able to find out how their relatives ones died, she said.
Ann Webb of the ACLU of North Carolina is concerned that if someone dies in jail or prison, the law change would make it harder for families and the public find out if the death stems from wrongdoing on the part of law enforcement.
"This change takes away the only source family members and loved ones have to get access to the medical records needed to hold law enforcement accountable for the death of their loved one," said Deryle Daniels Jr. of Advance Carolina, a Black political engagement organization.
Paul Woolverton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 910-261-4710.