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Opinion Law enforcement to Senate: SBI move, position cuts threaten public safety

Law enforcement experts from across North Carolina have contacted legislators to speak out against a proposal by the state Senate to move the State Bureau of Investigation out of the Department of Justice. The move would jeopardize the SBI’s independence and hamper its investigations, Attorney General Roy Cooper said.

“It’s vital that the SBI remain independent so that agents have the freedom to investigate crime and corruption in all branches of government without undue pressure or influence,” Cooper said.

 

Submitted by the NC Department of Justice

Law enforcement experts from across North Carolina have contacted legislators to speak out against a proposal by the state Senate to move the State Bureau of Investigation out of the Department of Justice. The move would jeopardize the SBI’s independence and hamper its investigations, Attorney General Roy Cooper said.

“It’s vital that the SBI remain independent so that agents have the freedom to investigate crime and corruption in all branches of government without undue pressure or influence,” Cooper said.

Local law enforcement, including sheriffs and police across the state are also against moving the SBI and some of them plan to visit state senators to voice their opposition to the move and cuts to state law enforcement. The Senate budget also cuts more than 150 Victim Witness Assistants and more than 100 state troopers in the Highway Patrol in addition to more than 50 SBI positions, which Cooper said would further damage public safety.

“We believe that the move of the SBI away from the Department of Justice will weaken the core function of law enforcement which would be a detriment to the public safety of the citizens of the state,” said Police Chief John Letteney of Southern Pines, chairman of the NC Association of Chiefs of Police’s legislative committee and second vice president, in speaking on behalf of the Association. “In doing so, it makes the responsibility for state law enforcement less accountable by locating the SBI in a cabinet secretary’s department rather than under an elected official.”

Under the proposal, the SBI, Justice Academy and law enforcement training and standards would be moved to the new Department of Public Safety and would report to an agency head appointed by the Governor and approved by legislators. This could create a conflict and harm the integrity of future SBI investigations involving government officials and agencies, Cooper said.

“Sheriffs know they can bring in SBI agents for help with investigative expertise because the SBI’s core mission is assisting local law enforcement,” said Rockingham County Sheriff Sam Page, President of the NC Sheriffs’ Association. “Removing the SBI from the Department of Justice threatens that mission and would place several layers of bureaucracy between local law enforcement and SBI agents.”

For 74 years, the SBI has been in the Department of Justice to make sure there is a separation between the state’s top investigative force and those who might be investigated. SBI agents have worked on key public corruption cases throughout government, from allegations about governors and legislators to state agencies like the Division of Motor Vehicles and the Department of Correction, both of which are now part of the new Department of Public Safety.

The bill outlining the move was presented Wednesday without input from law enforcement.

“Local law enforcement agencies across the state rely on the expertise and assistance provided by the SBI,” Police Chief Mike Yaniero from Jacksonville and Chair of the NC Metro Coalition of Chiefs of Police said. We are concerned that the additional layers of bureaucracy caused by the SBI moving to a new agency would create an environment that would impact our ability to effectively take criminals off the street, ultimately affecting the public safety of our citizens.”

The budget proposal also cuts troopers and agents at a time when local law enforcement says it needs more help, not less. Cutting law enforcement and putting the SBI in a large new bureaucracy would force the Highway Patrol, Alcohol Law Enforcement, Juvenile Justice and others to compete for scarce resources.

“Sheriffs, Police Chiefs and prosecutors consistently tell me that they rely on the SBI for its independence and unique expertise,” Cooper said. “SBI agents help fight and solve crime in all 100 counties across our state, and they do it effectively and efficiently. That job must continue.”

In addition, moving the SBI out of the Department of Justice would interfere with ongoing improvements at the State Crime Lab, which is solving record numbers of cases and exonerating innocent people. The Lab will soon become only the second in the country to receive dual ISO accreditation and it will have a new lab director. Legislation passed recently by the House (House Bill 27) provides other important safeguards for the Lab, including a science advisory board and individual certification of all lab analysts.

“The lab is making important progress to meet the highest standards, and we can’t afford to see that progress derailed now,” Cooper said.

Local law enforcement and prosecutors support keeping the entire SBI, including the Lab, in the Department of Justice. The move is opposed by the NC Sheriffs Association, NC Association of Chiefs of Police, NC Police Executives Association, NC Metro Chiefs, NC Conference of District Attorneys, and the NC Victims Assistance Network among others.





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