Reginald Newberne, a former N.C. State Highway Patrolman who claims he was fired because he reported on the alleged misconduct of a fellow trooper, tried to maintain his composure Wednesday as a Wake County jury delivered its verdict in his whistleblower case.
The seven women and five men had been in deliberations since Monday, weighing Newberne’s claims that he was fired from the Highway Patrol in 2001 because he broke what he describes as a pervasive “code of silence” that often keeps law enforcement officers from exposing misconduct in their ranks.
The jury heard testimony over the previous week and decided to award Newberne $3.75 million, plus attorneys’ fees, court costs and about 14 years of prejudgment interest that will be assessed by the courts.
“I was just trying not to react,” Newberne said later Wednesday. “To be honest, I was just trying to be cool. It felt like a tremendous weight was off my shoulders.”
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Frank Perry, secretary of the state Department of Public Safety, said in a statement Wednesday that he was disappointed with the verdict and planned to ask Attorney General Roy Cooper to ask Judge Michael J. O’Foghludha to set it aside.
Newberne’s experience happened in 2000 and 2001, more than a decade before the police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., pushed long-simmering questions about the use of force to the fore of a national debate that rages today. Many of the same questions and allegations are the roots of the Newberne case, which started on May 14, 2000, shortly after midnight in Cumberland County.
Newberne was on one side of the county when he heard that a teen that troopers had stopped for a suspected driving while impaired offense had “jumped and run.” The teen handed his license to the trooper who pulled him over, then jumped out of his car and ran into a nearby wooded area, according to Newberne’s lawsuit.
By the time Newberne arrived, there were three other troopers at the scene and the teen had been caught and placed in the back of a Highway Patrol car. While Newberne was speaking with another trooper, Trooper Phillip A. Collins approached and was rubbing one of his hands.
Newberne said Collins told him that he had jammed his hand while striking the teen in the woods, and Trooper J.R. Edwards had “pulled it back in place.”
Newberne said he suggested to the injured trooper that he seek medical treatment, but Collins told him he “wouldn’t know what to tell the sergeant.” Collins had recently returned to duty, according to Newberne’s attorney, Mike Doyle of Houston, after injuring a hand during the apprehension of a suspect. Newberne said the trooper added that he might tell the sergeant he injured his hand after the DWI stop by falling.
Newberne said Wednesday that he quickly left after talking with Collins and seeing him with others who had been involved in the stop. “I thought, ‘These guys did something they shouldn’t have, and I didn’t want to be a part of it,’” Newberne added.
Later that day, the teen’s father filed a complaint with Internal Affairs of the Cumberland County highway patrol division, an office Newberne had been with for nearly six months. The father contended that Collins and Troopers Brian Johnson and Johnny Edwards had used excessive force in the apprehension and arrest of his son.
Breaking the ‘code’
On June 13, 2000, Newberne’s supervisor, A.C. Combs, who was a first sergeant at the time, asked Newberne whether he was involved in the arrest of the teen. Newberne told him he had arrived after the apprehension and arrest. When asked whether he saw anyone use force on the teen, Newberne responded that he had not. Newberne told his supervisor that Collins had apparently injured his hand during the stop, but wrestled with Combs’ request that he put down what he saw in a written statement.
Later that evening, Newberne became apprehensive about preparing the statement, according to his lawsuit, “for fear of retaliation and reprisal” by his supervisor and others within the division and Highway Patrol department. He informed his sergeant the next morning why he had not followed through with the report but relinquished and wrote a narrative after Combs’ insisted.
Newberne submitted a report that included seeing Collins with an injured hand but not what Collins had said about it. After talking with another trooper about his concerns about reprisal for breaking “the code of silence” but wanting “to do the right thing,” Newberne added the details to an amended report.
Several months later, after the first sergeant filed a complaint with Newberne’s captain that Newberne was “misleading, untruthful and incomplete in his oral and written communications,” a different investigation began. Newberne, not the officers who had been accused of using excessive force, was fired from his job on April 10, 2001. The allegations were that he engaged in a “serious personal conduct violation of the truthfulness directive.”
“Literally, they were going to go after him for breaking the code of silence,” said Doyle, his attorney.
Doyle pointed out that the investigation into the allegations of excessive force resulted with the department saying it was “inconclusive” whether what the troopers did was unjustified and none was sanctioned afterward.
Newberne said not only did he lose his job, but his life after the firing was rocky for a while.
“People don’t realize the things that these agencies do,” Newberne said. “It’s not only that they don’t want you, they try to keep you from going anywhere else.”
Newberne eventually landed work with the State Capital Police, then at Wake Technical Community College. He lives in Durham County now, building a life with a small child and his second wife.
As he listens to the new questions about police force, given the recent shooting in Charlotte and others across the country, Newberne offered his perspective.
“I can tell you what I think the issue is,” Newberne said. “The reason an officer can see something go on and not say anything – often the person who comes forward and says anything becomes the target.”
In his statement, Perry said he worried that the jury did not have a complete understanding of the allegations against Collins, Johnson and Edwards and the results of the investigation.
“Although the events occurred under a prior administration, I knew and respected the late Colonel Richard Holden, the Patrol Commander who dismissed then Trooper Reginald Newberne for being untruthful in his initial written statement,” Perry said. “I have no doubt that his decision was based solely on the fact that a sworn officer made an untruthful statement. Furthermore, as Secretary of the Department of Public Safety, I have first-hand knowledge that being untruthful is generally considered to be a firing offense for members of the Highway Patrol.”