In the summer of 2015, Harnett County sheriff’s leaders were thinking about how deputies reported to their bosses instances in which they used their Tasers or pepper spray or got physical with residents.
Their use-of-force policy was eight years old, records show. Nationally, officers were put under a magnifying glass every time they fired their weapons. The North Carolina Justice Academy had provided a training course on writing use-of-force reports for local agencies.
In Harnett, the sheriff’s office had an unusual asset at their disposal: The expert who wrote the curriculum lived locally. Two supervisors invited him to Lillington for a meeting. But they later declined to accept his offer of further help.
Three months after their meeting, a man was shot and killed by a Harnett deputy with a history of getting physical with residents in the community he patrolled. In the months that followed, other residents came forward to complain that deputies violated their civil rights by battering them and invading their homes. Since the spring, the U.S. Department of Justice has been investigating the department.
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And last week, 15 months after Wayne Coats – then a major, now the sheriff – sought some guidance from Jon Blum, the local expert, Coats was named as a defendant in a lawsuit filed in federal court. It accused him of allowing aggressive and disrespectful deputies to harm or harass several residents.
“These deputies operated for years in Harnett with impunity as the (sheriff’s office) and its leaders appear to have condoned and/or simply turned a blind eye to the misconduct, thereby creating a culture of excessive force among its officers,” the lawsuit states. “This deliberate indifference by the (sheriff’s office) sent a clear message that such law enforcement behavior was not only tolerated, but encouraged.”
The litigation will likely force former Deputy Nicholas Kehagias and several of his colleagues to explain why they used force against residents of this rural county south of Raleigh. It could also lay bare every decision – or omission – former Sheriff Larry Rollins and Coats made to train or discipline their deputies.
Coats, who became sheriff in March, declined to comment on the litigation. He did not respond to questions about his work in August 2015 to review policies and training.
He said in a statement Thursday that he has invested a considerable amount of time since becoming sheriff to review policies and training.
Among the first things Coats did after taking office: He updated the department’s 2007 use-of-force policy. The new policy offers more guidance on the use of Tasers.
An offer to help
Blum, the use-of-force expert called into the sheriff’s office last August, said Coats wanted to talk about the course Blum had created. He recalls advising Coats and another supervisor that deputies were likely under-reporting incidents in which they used force.
It was a common problem across the country, Blum said he explained. And without thorough reporting, supervisors wouldn’t know how to spot areas in which officers need more training or should be reined in.
Blum said he made an offer: He would send them materials that might help with a review of their policies. He offered to give feedback on any of their training and policy revisions and sent them samples of policies and training materials.
About six weeks later, after sending them materials, Blum said he hadn’t heard more from them. He reached out.
“You need some help?” Blum recalls asking.
He said the response was simple: “No, we’re good.”
It’s unclear whether Blum’s assistance would have had any effect on how deputies were using force or whether he would have influenced Coats’ new use-of-force policy.
A ‘proactive’ deputy
Kehagias had entered John Livingston’s home in the middle of the night last November without a warrant; the deputy said he was justified in entering after Livingston tried to shut his front door, hitting Kehagias’ arm and boot. After a 10-minute struggle, Kehagias shot Livingston three times. Kehagias says Livingston had gained control of the officer’s Taser and turned it on him.
Local residents had questions: Why hadn’t Kehagias retreated when Livingston refused to let him inside his home? Did Kehagias really fear for his life?
The News & Observer spent more than four months this year examining Livingston’s death and other allegations of misconduct involving the Harnett sheriff’s office. An analysis of arrest reports revealed that Kehagias and his patrol unit charged more residents with resisting a public officer than any of the other squads.
Kehagias issued more resisting a public officer charges in 2014 and 2015 than any other deputy in the department, records show. His count alone, 26, was nearly as high as two other nine-member patrol squads.
That charge is seen by veteran law enforcement officers as a potential red flag that an officer may be getting unnecessarily rough with those he encounters.
In an interview in May, Kehagias defended his work, saying it reflects a “proactive” deputy who often encountered residents who hate officers.
“A proactive law enforcement officer is going to run into more situations where someone does not want to cooperate with law enforcement...” Kehagias said. “You are going to encounter more resistance the more active you are.”
Coats would not say in an interview earlier this year what, if any, process his office had to monitor or review arrest records or use-of-force reports to spot potential problems.
Residents who complained about deputies to sheriff’s department leaders said their concerns were not heeded.
Christine Broom, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said she blamed herself for not being more persuasive when she complained to the sheriff’s office. Broom said deputies helped her intoxicated tenant break into her home in January 2015; she was then arrested for resisting a public officer.
Broom said in an interview earlier this year that the sheriff’s office should have taken her complaint more seriously.
“The main thing is that those two officers should not have been on the street anymore,” Broom said. “They shouldn’t be allowed to go to people’s homes. They are not trained properly.”
Locke: 919-829-8927 or @MandyLockeNews
A local expert
Who is Jon Blum?
Blum is a former police officer who directed the state’s basic law enforcement training programs for the North Carolina Department of Justice.
A resident of Angier, Blum runs a private company that trains law enforcement on use-of-force issues. A Democrat, he ran unsuccessfully earlier this month to unseat state Rep. David Lewis.
Blum also served as a member of the Harnett County grand jury when it was asked to indict Harnett Deputy Nicholas Kehagias for second-degree murder in the death of John Livingston. The grand jury declined to bring charges.
Blum said he could not discuss the grand jury deliberation, citing state law that prohibits members from talking about their work.
Sheriff Wayne Coats provided the following statement Thursday:
“Since the time that I received the honor of being named Sheriff of Harnett County, my staff and I have spent considerable time:
▪ Reviewing the policies and procedures as well as the training and education programs of the Harnett County Sheriff’s Office;
▪ Reviewing specific instances of allegations of misconduct;
▪ Working with our attorneys to cooperate with the U.S. Department of Justice in its review of the Harnett County Sheriff’s Office;
▪ Continuing the implementation of modern law enforcement practices; and
▪ Continuing to provide educational opportunities and guidance to ensure the people of Harnett County receive law enforcement protection in a constitutional manner.
We assure the public that the Harnett County Sheriff’s Office and its dedicated deputies will continue to ensure that the citizens of Harnett County receive professional law enforcement service as we work to protect all of the people of our county.
We assure everyone that the Harnett County Sheriff’s Office team is dedicated to supporting and defending the Constitution of the United States and of this state and to fully, faithfully and fairly enforcing the laws of North Carolina.
We look forward to the resolution of the U.S. Department of Justice’s inquiry in the near future. We will provide updates as appropriate.
Additionally, at the appropriate time, we will provide an update on the progress made within the Sheriff’s Office. We have an excellent team at the Harnett County Sheriff’s Office, and I am grateful for their service.
Finally, as to the civil lawsuit which has been filed in the U.S. District Court, we have not received service of the Complaint, but we have been advised by the media of its existence.
We have requested our attorneys review the civil Complaint and provide legal guidance and respond appropriately at the time provided by law.”