A new law that went into effect Jan. 1 brings more criminal justice reform to North Carolina.
Senate Bill 300 will require psychological screenings of sheriff's deputies and dispatchers prior to certification or employment. The law is intended to educate law enforcement on maintaining good mental health and provide information to officers on mental health resources available to them.
SB 300 applies to all newly hired sheriff deputies, detention officers, and telecommunications as of Jan. 1, unless they are already certified by the North Carolina Sheriffs' Training and Standards Commission.
"It's certainly a benefit; a plus and not a minus," said Craven County Sheriff's Office Maj. David McFadyen. "I think most law enforcement agencies and some of your larger agencies already have protocols in place to do this, this just makes it uniform across the state."
The reform comes with a price. The new law went into effect as an unfunded mandate from the state, meaning the county must foot the bill.
In order to do so, Human Resources Director Amber Parker addressed the Craven County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday asking for an amendment to the fiscal year 2021-2022 budget.
Parker explained the county expects to conduct 40 screenings throughout the remaining fiscal year (ending July 1) as each screening costs $445. The budget amendment was passed by the board unanimously for the sum of $18,000, transferred from the general fund to human resources.
It is the agency’s (sheriff's department) responsibility to ensure the psychological screening has been completed prior to the deputy, detention officer, or telecommunicator performing any duties of his or her position.
Craven has psychological screenings before, just not mandated
The screenings for employment will be performed by The FMRT Group, which is also the vendor Craven County routinely uses for fitness-for-duty evaluations and other psychological services.
McFadyen explained that previously there was not a required mental health screening prior to employment with the department, but they were done on a case-by-case basis if needed.
Before the required employment screening, the department used The FMRT Group for other purposes regarding mental health such as deputy-involved shootings where the mental health of a deputy may need to be addressed.
The Craven County Sheriff's Office will continue to use the group for additional mental health issues as needed, McFayden said.
"For instance, after incident issues involving a shooting, we have a couple of different sources," he said. "One was to use the current psychologist we will use now for employment screening but also the North Carolina Highway Patrol has a unit of trained officers who travel around the state when requested and assist agencies in post-critical incident response."
The psychological screening comes in the wake of an Oct. 1 incident involving Craven County Deputy Zachary Bellingham, who was shot in the line of duty. Bellingham is still in recovery two months after the incident.
It is unknown if any deputies needed counseling following Bellingham's injuries.
McFadyen explained the process of how the department approaches mental health needs.
"In any critical situation like that, what we will typically do is put our deputies on administrative leave and more often than not, we will have a fitness-to-return-for-duty exam," McFadyen said. "That's been our standard practice prior to this legislation."
Will the screening discourage future applicants?
Commissioners raised concerns were raised during the meeting, particularly about what type of impact the screening could have on future applicants.
"My focus is not to create an extra burden on applicants," Chairman Jason Jones said. "I can see that for some it may have a deter, but we definitely have to follow the law."
Vice Chairman Denny Bucher also cited that the screening may provide a bottleneck in hiring for these positions in a time when applicants are hard to come by. Parker explained that is a possibility, but there are many municipalities that have used this type of service for a long time.
"It is interesting that this) just became law," added Parker. "You don't want to have someone who is not psychologically suitable, especially with what is happening currently in the country. There is a possibility we have a candidate that gets screened out, but there are a lot of tools used to ensure the candidate is giving valid responses. We want to make sure those we hire are suitable."
Reform comes in all shapes and sizes in new law
SB 300 not only includes an enhanced position on mental health, but several other items legislatures added into the law.
Here are a few noticeable items that may have an impact on the public moving forward.
• Database of justice officer certification suspensions and revocations.
The North Carolina Sheriffs' Training and Standards Commission is now required to create a database, accessible for the public, regarding any and all decertification and suspensions for sheriffs deputies.
• Require mandatory first appearance for misdemeanors when the defendant is in custody.
The new law requires a mandatory first appearance for misdemeanors if the defendant is in custody, along with shortening the time the defendant is required to have their first appearance, from 96 hours to 72 hours.
• Duty to intervene and report excessive use of force.
A law enforcement officer, while in the line of duty, who observes another law enforcement officer use force against another person shall intervene when safe to do so. If the officer believes the use of force was unauthorized, that person will be required to report the incident within 72 hours of it taking place.
• Provide immediate disclosure of body-worn camera recordings related to death or serious injury.
In the event of death or serious harm resulting from an officer-involved incident, the family or representative of the person is now entitled to have the body-worn camera footage disclosed to them. However, the family or representative can not copy the footage.
The release of body camera footage to the public must be petitioned to the court to get a judge’s approval.
Reporter Trevor Dunnell can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please consider supporting local journalism by signing up for a digital subscription.
This article originally appeared on Sun Journal: Screenings now required for certain Craven County sheriff employees