Thursday, May 05, 2016

Sheriffs gone wild! Rural N.C. department accused of getting away with repeated abuse

Hartnett County in blue (University of North Carolina)
Who polices out-of-control sheriff's departments? In Harnett County, North Carolina, it seems the answer is no one, according to an investigative series, "Deadly Force," by the News & Observer. The investigation shows that the sheriff's office has free rein to do whatever it wants, leading to complaints from residents that they were "injured, abused or were having their homes needlessly invaded by sheriff’s deputies, Mandy Locke reports for the News & Observer. "At least six people who said they were abused or harassed by deputies called or wrote to the sheriff’s office, district attorney’s office or other officials about incidents in their home. They said they were ignored or told they would never know what action was taken as a result. The sheriff’s office and the district attorney’s office also did not analyze arrest records or use-of-force documents that signaled potential problems."

"In North Carolina, residents have little power to force officials to heed their complaints," Locke writes. "Sheriffs are elected, and they hire and fire at will. It is largely up to them to watch over deputies to make sure they work within the law. District attorneys have the authority to enlist the State Bureau of Investigation to look into complaints of excessive force, but that has not happened in Harnett."

"Larry Rollins, first elected sheriff in 2002, retired in March, citing personal reasons," Locke writes. His replacement, Wayne Coats, "said he had some knowledge of internal affairs investigations in two of the incidents, but he declined to discuss them. Requests for copies of the sheriff’s internal affairs investigations were denied. The department was also unwilling to give specifics about the number of the investigations it has conducted. No one evaluates criminal charges to track trends or report findings to other county officials or the district attorney."

Jesse Jones, a lawyer who represents the family of John Livingston—who was shot and killed by sheriff's deputies in his home in November—and several of those who say they were battered by deputies, "said the sheriff’s office and district attorney ignored his complaints about deputy behavior for years," Locke writes. "He said that the communities where it was happening—largely poor—made it easy for officials to disregard the questions." Jones told Locke, “They could give a rat’s ass. They don’t care. They don’t care. I’ve complained so many times about things that have happened.”

Most of the complaints involved officers on D Squad, which had nearly twice as many resisting public officer charges as any other squad, Locke writes. One officer alone, Nicholas Kehagias, had 26 resisting public officer charges from 2014-15, nearly as many as the total of the other squads during that time, with A Squad having 31, B Squad 39 (five of those were by Kehagias after he was transferred to that squad) and C Squad had 32. D Squad had 63.

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