ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. (WAVY) — Pasquotank County will lobby state lawmakers to give citizens the limited authority to review complaints against sheriff’s deputies, in an effort to increase transparency and rebuild trust within the community following the death of Andrew Brown Jr. last year.
While Pasquotank County Sheriff Tommy Wooten supports making the change, he says following the “attacks” he’s received, he doesn’t think the effort will be successful.
The Board of Commissioners’ vote was 5-2 Monday to request the North Carolina General Assembly pass a local law that would allow the newly created Sheriff’s Citizens Advisory Council (CAC) to review complaints made against sheriff’s deputies and possible disciplinary actions taken.
County Manager Sparty Hammett said the access would be limited and the process would only play out if a citizen is not satisfied with the results of the internal investigation already conducted by the sheriff’s office. Members would have to sign a confidentiality agreement and would not be given copies of documents.
They also won’t have real power to make decisions.
“The sheriff will review the CAC’s findings and have the final decision,” Hammett said.
Currently, the cities of Charlotte, Durham, Greensboro and Winston-Salem have citizen review boards with the authority. If it passes both chambers of the General Assembly, Pasquotank would become the first county in the state to receive the same power.
Hammett said Wooten, who is elected independently and doesn’t report to county administration, came up with the idea and asked him to help make it happen.
Wooten, a Republican who is in his first term as the county’s chief law enforcement officer, found himself at the center of controversy last April when multiple deputies fired their weapons while attempting to serve a warrant, killing Andrew Brown, Jr.
While, the district attorney said the shooting — which was all captured on deputy body camera video — was justified, marches were led in the streets of Elizabeth City for weeks. On national news, protesters called for the firing of the deputies involved and transparency from the sheriff’s and district attorney’s offices.
On Monday, a visibly emotional Wooten thanked Hammett and several board members for their support. However, he said the request was “pointless.”
“Get the elephant out of the room. This is not going to pass,” Wooten said. “I’ve already been called from the legislative level. The snake cut off at the head.”
Wooten said that many North Carolina laws put law enforcement actions “behind a curtain.” In his attempt to pull back the curtain, he said he discovered many people wanted to keep things that way.
“I am not a fan of politics,” Wooten said.
The General Assembly is currently controlled by Republicans. The party has embraced supporting law enforcement for the past several years.
Nationwide, those who identify with “backing the blue” have frequently pushed back against increased law enforcement oversight, with the belief it will reduce morale. Wooten explained he heard many concerns from people who feared the implications of giving citizens the new authority.
Both Commissioners Sean Lavin and Jonathan Meads, both Republicans like Wooten, brought up similar concerns in their reason for voting against the request.
However, Wooten doubled down, saying he believed increased community involvement would only help his deputies.
“So they can stop walking around with their heads hung low because when they go street they’re getting berated. They’re getting cussed at and they’re getting fussed at,” Wooten said. “Try not to get emotional because it has been a very hard road. I’ve never been attacked so much in my life for doing what I thought was the right thing.”
Following Wooten’s remarks, Lavin added that he didn’t believe the CAC was set up correctly yet to make the request. He criticized the lack of background checks conducted on those who make up the panel.
“I have no problem being one of the first counties in North Carolina to establish such a program. I just don’t want to be the last,” Lavin said.
Even with Wooten’s doubts, Hammett said he will now be directing the county’s lobbyist to try and convince a lawmaker to carry the legislation in the short session that begins May 18.
The county is represented by state Sen. Bob Steinburg (R-Edenton) and state Rep. Howard Hunter (D-Ahoskie).
Reached after the vote, Hunter said he didn’t know enough about the request to comment yet.
Steinburg also wouldn’t say if he would vote for it or not but did say he likely wouldn’t carry the bill as it wasn’t a unanimous vote from the commissioners.
“In my experience, if it isn’t unanimous it doesn’t stand much of a chance,” Steinburg said.
Even if the legislation isn’t considered, the CAC has the power now to conduct hearing appeals/grievances from sheriff’s office employees concerning disciplinary actions against deputies and/or employees; review internal policies and procedures of the office; participate in the hiring process, help promote public awareness about policing and provide input from the community to the sheriff whenever possible.
Keith Rivers, president of the Pasquotank County NAACP chapter, said that in itself is progress, even if the General Assembly ignores the county’s request.
“If it doesn’t make it in round one, we’ll be back in round two, round three and round four,” Rivers said. “We are going to move forward and a vote of five to two clearly shows that.”