Raleigh police talk with protesters sitting on June 30 across the street from the N.C. Executive Mansion in Raleigh. The demonstrators camped out to protest a bill that could have limited public access to death investigation records. Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the bill on July 7, 2020. Courtesy of News and Observer.

RALEIGH – Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed Senate Bill 168 Monday night, which has gained national attention for a provision that would have shielded some death investigation records from the public.

The veto came hours after North Carolina legislators introduced Senate Bill 232, which would have repealed the public records provision.

In June, the legislature passed SB 168 nearly unanimously in a late-night vote before leaving Raleigh.

“Senate Bill 168 includes a provision to change the handling of public records by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner which could have the unintended consequence of limiting transparency in death investigations,” Cooper said in Monday’s release about the veto.

“While I believe neither the Department of Health and Human Services, which proposed it, nor the General Assembly, which unanimously passed it, had any ill intent, the concerns that have since been raised make it clear this provision should not become law.”

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, an agency overseen by Cooper, requested the language in the bill to make mostly technical revisions to department-related laws, including adding a provision that mandates certain records remain confidential when used as part of a death investigation.

“Senate Bill 168 was intended to be a noncontroversial agency bill which contains a number of important provisions,” said Matt Gross, DHHS assistant secretary for government affairs, on July 1.

SB 168 included adjustments to federal block grants and an update to the state’s definition for developmental disabilities.

But if Cooper would have signed the bill into law, the records provision would have closed a loophole that makes law enforcement records public if they are in the possession of the medical examiner.

Dozens of protesters have camped outside the governor’s mansion since June 29 to call on Cooper to veto SB 168. They have expressed concerns that limiting public access to the death records could hide actions that happen in police custody. Some have said the lack of transparency would only serve to increase police distrust.

A week later, the protesters celebrated Cooper’s veto in downtown Raleigh Monday night after they had cautiously celebrated a small victory of the SB 232 repeal. They cheered when they learned of the veto.

“I’m so proud of y’all,” Lauren Howell, one of the protest leaders, told the crowd sitting on South Salisbury Street. “We did this. Nobody did this but us. Don’t let them take this victory from us.”

Cooper had asked Senate Rules Chairman Bill Rabon, a Republican from Brunswick County, that the provision be repealed in a “clean bill.”

“I believe it is in everyone’s best interest to pass the other important provisions and repeal Section 2.5,” Cooper said in a letter, referring to the records provision.

The House introduced SB 232 Monday afternoon, which would have repealed the records provision, per the governor’s request. The bill also included a provision that would allow individuals to wear a mask for public health reasons beyond Aug. 1. Under current state law, after Aug. 1, wearing a mask in public is illegal.

Joseph Mbemba, who has attended protests in recent weeks, said the introduction of the repeal bill was “a victory in a couple of ways.” He told The N&O that the group knows that their work can affect everyone across the state.

“It shows that we as a people are dedicated, and we know how to use our voice, and how to use it the right way,” he said. “We understand that this is something we shouldn’t have to do in the first place; we shouldn’t have to be out here on the streets multiple days for this to happen, but if this is what we have to do then we will do it.”

Protesters respond to records concerns

Monday, demonstrators gathered again outside the governor’s mansion. Before Cooper’s veto was announced, Howell told the crowd about the new bill. It represented a victory for the protesters, many who have taken part in daily demonstrations since George Floyd was killed in May.

Howell, who is with activist group NC Born, said there is still more work to be done in their fight for racial equality and the end to systemic racism.

“We are definitely celebrating our endurance, our resiliency and our strength,” Howell told The News & Observer in an interview before the veto. “But we know the fight still continues. We’re still pushing, but definitely it’s important to celebrate the small victories.”

Cooper calling for the bill’s repeal was a good sign that their work in front of his residence has paid off, Howell said. She wishes the daily vigils had not been necessary, though.

“I do appreciate that,” Howell said. “But I think that it’s important not to ignore your constituents.”

This story was jointly reported and edited by Lucille Sherman, Jordan Schrader, Jessica Banov and Jonas Pope IV of The News & Observer and Nick Ochsner of WBTV.

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  1. Thank you for reporting on this issue. As a family member of more than one person who died of unusual circumstances, I think it is of paramount importance that family access to medical examiner reports be permanently granted, on the basis for internal family investigations of it’s own members. Coming from a different perspective, a dark one indeed. Please feel free to not publish my comment, as I may be the next one in line for the family beast, a probable driver of this attempt of protecting itself from discovery.