Reform of a state agency many have heard of but most know little about, the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (SBI), is one of the provisions drawing attention in a proposed state budget passed by the North Carolina Senate. This budget continues the work of making state government finances more efficient and cost-effective, while also moving the organization of state government towards a more rational structure. Hopefully, the state House and Gov. Pat McCrory will concur with this recommendation.
The Senate, to improve coordination and collaboration, would move the SBI out of the Department of Justice (DOJ), which is controlled by the elected Attorney General, and into the Department of Public Safety (DPS), which is run by the governor. The DPS already oversees much of the state law enforcement structure, such as the Highway Patrol and Alcohol Law Enforcement, and it also has the Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice divisions under its purview. It oversees the Emergency Management section and the National Guard. It is a one-stop department for law enforcement and dealing with public emergencies.
Adding the SBI would further increase the synergies available to DPS for response across the spectrum of public safety problems whether they are crimes, terrorist threats or disasters. It also would allow for greater efficiencies in training and professional education by sharing resources for common requirements.
Having the SBI, or a similar agency, under the governor is a common practice around the country. States as varied as New York, New Jersey, South Carolina and Virginia have their versions of the SBI under the governor. Having the agency responsible for investigating criminal activity and procuring the evidence separate from the personnel who prosecute the crime is seen by many as an important safeguard of the rights of the accused. While prosecutors and police work closely together, the local police and sheriff are not controlled or supervised by the prosecuting attorney.
In the case of the current structure, however, we have the SBI reporting to the “state’s top law enforcement officer and top lawyer.” The current AG, Roy Cooper, has called on the legislature to give more power to district attorneys and to the AG to investigate crime. While this might be a good idea, having the professionals who do the actual investigative work beholden to the prosecutor who wants convictions could cause problems. As they say, a little distance is a good thing.
A more immediate and practical matter is the recent history of the SBI and the oversight, or lack thereof, provided by successive AGs. The most famous incident of an SBI failing is the false testimony of an agent in the murder trial of Durham novelist Michael Peterson. That testimony has set the stage for overturning his conviction for murdering his wife. Another case was the withholding of lab test results in the murder trial of Greg Taylor, who ended up spending 17 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. In 2010 an audit of the SBI showed that it withheld or distorted evidence in more than 200 cases at the expense of potentially innocent men and women.
The AG’s response was to move the head of the SBI to another well-paid position and put his department lobbyist, with no law enforcement or criminal law experience, in charge of the SBI.
Many of the problems uncovered have their origins in the SBI crime lab, which has had problems for years. The Senate budget would leave the crime lab in the DOJ, but it should also be moved with the rest of the SBI. Having the SBI and lab under the governor will give it better access to funding as the governor’s budget is built. Lack of funding is a constant complaint when it comes to the crime lab. The governor is in a much stronger position in requesting funds because he has the power of the veto and controls most of the state bureaucracy. The AG on the other hand controls one small department and does not have the power of the veto when negotiating.
Moving the State Bureau of Investigation to the Department of Public Safety makes sense financially, organizationally and for the future of the agency. Being a member of an overall public safety team will improve all of the agencies in the DPS and individual personnel associated with each agency.
Francis X. De Luca is president of the Civitas Institute in Raleigh.