By Natalie Anderson
SALISBURY — Police Chief Jerry Stokes says most provisions included in a new law to strengthen accountability among law enforcement and improve training and recruitment efforts are already in place.
The bipartisan Senate Bill 300 was signed into law in September and includes recommendations from the Governor’s Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice. It was also supported by the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association and includes a number of provisions aimed at improving policing and criminal justice across the state.
Earlier this month, Salisbury City Council members approved a number of amendments to the city’s ordinances following guidance from City Attorney Graham Corriher to comply with provisions of the new law. Before the law, a violation of local ordinances was subject to criminal penalties, but now violations subject to criminal penalties must be specified in the city code.
Stokes said he worked with Corriher to specify which violations officers generally enforce and ones that most would conclude to be criminal behavior anyway. Examples include vandalism, obstruction of or interfering with police, discharging a firearm and violation of the curfew among juveniles.
Corriher also cleaned up some of the city’s ordinances that involve unenforceable measures adopted decades ago and are no longer constitutional today. Among those is the ordinance related to prohibiting “panhandling” or “solicitation of alms,” which Stokes said he recommended years ago no longer be enforced “because on its face it is unconstitutional.”
Rep. Harry Warren, a Republican representing Rowan County in District 76, previously told the Post the law will apply to each community differently depending on what standards and practices are already in place. Stokes said the Salisbury Police Department is already heeding to a number of the bill’s provisions.
One provision is the recruitment of officers with diverse backgrounds and experiences along with improved training. Two state training commissions are required in the state law to develop a guide for how to increase diversity in hires.
In 2018, the city hired Anne Little to take on the role of human relations manager, where she works to coordinate training related to diversity, equity and inclusion for all city employees. In July, representatives from the Charlotte-based WPR Consulting firm presented findings from a months-long assessment of racial bias within the department, which ultimately found that “The SPD, in and of itself, is not racially divided. However, there is a sense that there are individuals who were employed by the department who have engaged in behavior that may be viewed as racist.”
The firm’s recommendations included the design and implementation of a diversity, equity and inclusion strategic plan and a corresponding action plan for direction and goals, which the firm suggested Little lead. The firm also suggested the city and police increase its outreach to diverse populations to recruit more people of color. One suggestion was to bring officers to churches or schools.
Stokes told the Post he’s worked to actively recruit minority officers since he began in 2016. But the ongoing challenge of filling more than a dozen vacancies still persists. During a City Council meeting last week, Stokes said he agrees it’s important to hire a police force that’s reflective of the broader community, but he added hiring people of color can be especially challenging because many have indicated they don’t have an interest in working in law enforcement.
Department data showed it fares well with the state’s standards for demographic makeup of candidates. The department’s makeup currently includes 43 white male officers (62%), seven white female officers (10%), 10 Black male officers (15%), five Black female officers (7%), three Hispanic male officers (4%) and one Asian male officer (2%). Those percentages are rounded up to the nearest whole number.
The state sets a standard of not exceeding an 84% white police force, and SPD reports 73% of officers are white. Additionally, 22% of officers are Black though the state expects at least 9%; 4% are Hispanic and the state standard is 3%; and 17% are female with a state standard of 12%. SPD only lags behind state standards for those falling in the “other” demographic category.
“There is a requirement for the state to study and make recommendations for recruitment of minority officers,” Stokes told the Post. “We’ll be glad to hear any recommendations they may have as we have actively recruited minority officers to reflect our community well prior to this legislate initiative.”
The new law requires agencies to implement early intervention mechanisms to more effectively identify and correct officers found engaging in excessive force or other misconduct. It also includes provisions that allow the governor, sheriff, police chief, district attorney, head of state law enforcement or the Commissioner of Prisons to call on the State Bureau of Investigations for independent investigations of police-involved shootings and the deaths of incarcerated people. Stokes said the department has been seeking the help of the SBI “for many years,” though the department has not needed to call them in over the previous few years.
Additionally, Stokes said the department has a policy to report misconduct and clarified the “duty to intervene” in misconduct or excessive force before the new law’s passage because of instruction from the Commission for Accreditation of Law Enforcement Agencies. The department put in place an early warning system before his tenure as chief began in 2016. That system is used in monitoring officers’ actions and behaviors as well as citizen complaints.
“Even under our old policy, we would have addressed the failure to act if an officer did not intervene in a situation it would be their duty to do so,” Stokes said. “This isn’t a change for us either.”
As a result of the new law, a public certification, revocation and suspension database of law enforcement officers is required.
The Criminal Justice Standards Division of the Department of Justice will create a database of police-involved incidents involving use of force — a “critical incident” database. However, the database will be for internal review only and not available to the general public. Agencies are required report to the state “critical incidents,” which are defined in the law as incidents where an officer’s use of force results in death or serious bodily injury to a person.
Stokes said reporting such incidents is no problem, but added that Salisbury has not had a relevant case to report in a few years.
Under the new law, mental health and psychological assessments must be conducted prior to an officer’s employment. Stokes recalls undergoing such assessments when he began in 2016, so that won’t be new to the department, he said. The department also already submits fingerprints from potential candidates for criminal history searches, another provision of the new law.
Health care providers will now be able to transport those with mental illnesses for involuntary commitments, which previously had been handled by sheriff’s deputies.
The law includes reporting “Giglio officers,” which stems from a 1972 Supreme Court case in which the court held the prosecution must inform the jury that a witness had been promised not to be prosecuted in exchange for a testimony. The law strengthens disclosure of officers’ credibility when serving as witnesses in trials, which also came at the recommendation of the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association in 2020. This requires officers who are notified that they’re not eligible to testify at trial because of past biases or lack of credibility must also report that notification to the Criminal Justice Standards Division.
Stokes said Corriher assisted the department in reviewing past “Giglio officers” who Stokes would be required to report, but none qualify at this time.
Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.