LUMBERTON — A bill sponsored by state Rep. Charles Graham that aims to have law enforcement personnel in North Carolina better prepared to handle traffic stops in which individuals may not be able to understand their commands because is moving through the state Legislature.
House Bill 591 received that chamber’s approval Wednesday by a vote of 116 to 1. It was given first-reading approval in the Senate on Thursday and was referred to the Senate’s Committee on Rules and Operations for consideration. The bill must be approved by both legislative chambers before being sent to the governor, who can sign it into law or veto it.
The bill calls for a study by the state Department of Justice and Public Safety, in collaboration with the North Carolina Criminal Justice Education and Training Standards Commission and the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Education and Training Standards Commission, to determine what training may be provided to law enforcement officers to improve their ability during a traffic stop to identify a person who is “deaf or hard of hearing or has a developmental disability, traumatic brain injury, or mental illness” that is affecting their ability to comply with an officer’s orders.
Under the bill’s requirements, the Department of Justice and Public Safety must report by Dec. 1 its findings, including any legislative recommendations, to the state’s Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Justice and Public Safety.
The bill is in response to an incident that occurred in Charlotte in August 2016, according to a statement by Graham, who represents Robeson County. At that time, a state Highway Patrol officer shot and killed an individual who was deaf and did not understand the officer’s directions.
“I was pleased to present this legislation on behalf of Disability Rights North Carolina,” Graham said. “I believe we have well-trained officers providing safety on our streets. This study will provide insight as to additional needs these officers may have in carrying out their duties to keep us all safe. With a better understanding and knowledge that many licensed drivers have disabilities that may interfere with their ability to act appropriately during a traffic stop, law enforcement officers can do a better job in handling crisis situations.”
According to its website, Disability Rights North Carolina is dedicated to protecting and advocating for the rights of people with disabilities across the state.
While law enforcement officers receive some basic law enforcement training in how to handle cases involving the deaf and those with mental disabilities, that training is limited, said Burnis Wilkins, the current law enforcement training coordinator at Robeson Community College and a member of the Lumberton City Council.
“Any additional training that can be added in these areas is good,” Wilkins said. “This training would be in addition to Basic Law Enforcement Training that is required of all law enforcement officers. It would be added to the continuing law enforcement training programs that officers have to take above their basic training.”
Training of law enforcement officers to deal with people who are totally deaf, somewhat hearing impaired, or with mental disabilities that infringe upon their abilities to understand an officer’s commands will have to include what to do in “cooperative situations” and in “uncooperative situations,” such as pursuit Wilkins said.
“Not just the officer needs to be trained, but so does the public,” said Wilkins. “If an individual has the capacity to have a driver’s license, they need to have the training to know how to act when involved in a traffic stop.”
Bob Shiles can be reaced at 910-416-5165.