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N.C. legislator: Public records provision will be addressed

North Carolina legislators will take another look at a provision within a bill on Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk that keeps certain police investigative records secret when they are forwarded to the state medical examiner, a top Republican said Tuesday.

A broad health measure approved last week by the House and Senate includes language sought by the Department of Health and Human Services. It would clarify that death investigation records held by local or state law enforcement and deemed confidential under state public records law would retain that same confidentiality when they are handed to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

North Carolina Chief Medical Examiner Michelle Aurelius has said current law has made law enforcement more hesitant to share records that her office needs to determine a cause of death. But public records and prisoner advocates contend the language could make investigations into unnatural or unexpected deaths, like those occurring in police custody or at a jail, less transparent, a coalition of media outlets reported.

House Majority Leader John Bell, a Wayne County Republican, said the language was included in the bill because it was requested by DHHS, one of Cooper’s Cabinet-level agencies. The language, initially introduced in another measure filed in April 2019, has received renewed attention because it was approved late at night and as calls for police reform have intensified following the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“After further conversations and discussions about its unintended consequences, I am confident this will be revisited and corrected once the legislature reconvenes,” Bell said in a news release. The Senate also would have to agree to act. The legislature is expected to return briefly next week, then go home until September.

Cooper hasn’t commented publicly on the bill, which he can sign into law or veto. It will also become law if he doesn’t act by next Monday.

Opposition to the records provision became a rallying cry for dozens of people demonstrating outside the Executive Mansion in the early hours Tuesday, multiple news outlets reported. They want Cooper to veto the measure, saying the language would hurt the Black Lives Matter movement.

By late morning, a dozen protesters remained on the sidewalk across the street from the Mansion. Raleigh police confirmed through Twitter that four of the protesters were arrested on Tuesday afternoon for spray painting in the middle of the street. The demonstration ended soon afterward.

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