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A new bill banning racial profiling could help improve police oversight

When prohibition works

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By the end of 2014, it was routine to hear the media and others talk about "the Mike Brown trial." This 18-year-old's name, accompanied by Jonathan Ferrell, Ersilla Ore and Eric Garner, have become synonymous with police misconduct, racial profiling and bias-based policing. But do the names of the officers connected to these controversial cases roll off the tongue as easily? Probably not, but don't feel too bad.

Why? State and federal law enforcement agencies also have a hard time keeping track of the names of officers who shoot or choke people. Inconsistent reporting makes it "nearly impossible to determine how many people are killed by the police each year." That's according to the Wall Street Journal, which found in a recent study that hundreds of police-related killings are missing from the national tally. This lack of documentation makes it difficult to prove patterns of discrimination.

As a result, victims' names become rallying cries. Grieving mothers eager for a place at the table of justice are forced to swallow black-on-black crime statistics that do not explain this epidemic or ease their pain.

Inspired by the cycle of young black males being profiled and/or killed by police, N.C. Rep. Rodney Moore plans to introduce the Prohibition of Discriminatory Practices Bill (PDPB) this month. The name of the bill reflects the intent to address "discriminatory profiling in general," said Moore, including profiling based on race, sexual orientation or immigration status.

The bill "grants powers to municipalities, so that they are able to make decisions for their own communities with regard to police oversight," said Robert Dawkins, a community activist who has been working to gain support for the bill across the state.

Earlier this month, for example, Charlotte City Council voted unanimously to spend $7 million to equip local police with body cameras. Department policy, however, prevents the public from seeing whatever video footage is captured by these devices, citing North Carolina laws protecting personnel files and data that's part of a criminal investigation.

Video footage could make a difference in the criminal case against CMPD officer Randall Kerrick, who's charged with voluntary manslaughter after shooting and killing 24-year-old Jonathan Ferrell in 2013. But the city does not have the power to grant lawyers or advocates access to that footage.

"Because North Carolina is a Dillon's Law state, municipalities have to get those powers from the General Assembly," said Dawkins. "This bill is intended to remove these kinds of barriers."

The Bill of Rights Defense Committee, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization championing fundamental freedoms found in the Constitution, helps grassroots organizations in cities across the country develop and pass policies like those found in the PDPB.

"Whether it's on the national or state level, passing legislation demanding transparency from governmental agencies is often difficult because we often find ourselves bumped against those very agencies," said Becca Bodner, BORDC communications specialist. She says police departments "typically don't want to admit there is a problem, and so they are generally resistant to any resolution that might imply they're not doing their job."

In an effort to better police the police, the PDPB would strengthen the power of citizen's review boards. Charlotte's Citizen Review Board, established in 1997 and one of five in North Carolina tasked with addressing allegations of police misconduct, has always sided with law enforcement. In addition, due to the unreasonably high requirement for substantial evidence and the inappropriately focused standard of review at the threshold of the appeals process, only four cases have actually made it the board.

Currently, citizen review boards are advisory in nature and have no investigatory power. If Moore's bill is passed, Charlotte City Council could empower the board with the ability to subpoena records and review internal investigations and personnel records.

"The push is on two different levels," said Dawkins. "You have the advocates working in different cities to get as much change and transparency from the local government, and on the state level we are working to remove barriers different municipalities may have."

Another issue the PDPB addresses is the improvement of data collection, which could help determine patterns of discrimination. Currently, data collection starts after arrest or conviction and does not allow public dissemination. The PDPB would bolster this statute by starting documentation at the time of arrest and collecting additional information as endorsed by the Department of Justice.

Not only would police be required to collect empirical data in homicide statistics (such as identifying characteristics of offenders and victims), the details of routine activities like traffic stops would also need to be recorded. That includes whether an officer attempted to determine the immigration status of the driver or passengers.

Doing so may help deter the unfair targeting of Latinos or other immigrant groups. Last year, North Carolina garnered national headlines for the D.O.J. investigation into Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson and his department for allegedly detaining Latinos without probable cause.

"Alamance County took 287(g) to a whole other level," said Action NC director Hector Vaca, referring to the program that gives local police the power to start the deportation process for undocumented immigrants who are stopped for minor, non-violent offenses, such as traffic violations. "There is clearly a focus on people who appear to be Latino, compared to other races."

"There was a time when Charlotte was mainly black and white," said Moore. "Today, we are so much more diverse. We need to prepare officers for the new citizen."

Officers would also be required to undergo racial equity training, thus preparing new hires for the various populations they will be working with and "help more experienced officers to better address the new citizens of our state," said Moore. He added that training would be standardized across the state and include neighborhood watch representatives, "to prevent another Trayvon Martin."

If the PDPB were passed as written, North Carolina would be laying a blueprint for the rest of the country, with accurate documentation and the inclusion of vulnerable communities. Moore said the PDPB is intended to discourage misconduct, encourage transparency and address the need to rebuild the public trust.

In North Carolina's conservative-led General Assembly, it'll be difficult to get both parties to agree on anything, much less such sweeping legislation as the PDPB. But it's needed. At the very least, grieving mothers who've lost a child to police brutality can know they have place at the table.

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