Joseph Michael Conover, the owner of a private security company accused of abusing his law enforcement authority, rose before Wake County Judge Donald Stephens on Wednesday as part of a plea arrangement with prosecutors.
Conover, the 39-year-old owner of Nova Company Police Agency, knew he would be spending the next 16 months in prison. He was convicted earlier this year of abusing his power to illegally access the state’s criminal information network to look up a neighbor’s personal information because the two were feuding.
On Wednesday, Conover pleaded guilty to additional charges — felonious obstruction of justice, four counts of failure to discharge the duties of his office, four counts of simple assault, three counts of misdemeanor obstruction of justice and one count of false imprisonment.
The charges stem from a series of arrests and assaults that Conover made while under contract to provide private security at several North Raleigh apartment and condominium complexes. The incidents brought a harsh rebuke from the judge.
“I don’t know where you went wrong,” Stephens said, peering down from the bench. “You turned out to be as bad a cop as you could be. It’s shocking frankly – that someone who has some kind of police authority – and could abuse it in this manner.”
Conover shocked a man with a Taser without any provocation from the victim or any just cause, according to prosecutors. He used pepper spray against another man he encountered, then rubbed the victim’s face with the shirt soaked with sweat and the stinging pepper.
He used his Taser to shock a man who had called the state attorney general’s office to file a complaint against him, while a Raleigh police officer, called by the victim for assistance, was in a nearby room.
In another incident, Conover put a blue light on his security company car, forced someone to pull over and then approached with his gun drawn.
In several cases, the people Conover was arresting called 911 dispatchers for help while he was driving them to the magistrate’s office.
The Conover cases came to light in a Wake County courtroom after a prosecutor discovered many inconsistencies in the report filed by the security officer and witness accounts of what happened.
That led to an investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation and Conover’s arrest a year ago on numerous charges. It also led to the dismissal of 35 cases brought by Conover that had been pending in the Wake County courts.
Conover’s case highlighted concerns that have been growing across the nation about “private” police companies that often are hired to provide security at housing developments, malls and, in some places, hospitals.
In North Carolina, state authorities grant police powers to private agencies that have met the state’s minimum law enforcement requirements, but only in the jurisdiction where they are contracted to work. Some private officers can also access the state’s criminal information network, but they’re able to get only limited amounts of information, state justice department officials have said.
Nova contracts primarily with apartment developments and subdivisions to provide security. The company also services stores and industries, according to its website.
The state Department of Justice revoked Conover’s commission as a police officer 13 months ago.
As part of the plea arrangement Wednesday, prosecutors dropped some of the outstanding charges. Prosecutors said the abuse of power was so troubling that several of the investigators had sleepless nights.
Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said the end goal of prosecutors was to make sure that Conover could not be certified as a law enforcement officer again in North Carolina, and preferably nowhere else in the nation.
“This was the worst case of abuse of authority that I have experienced and seen up close in my 20 years in working in the criminal justice system,” Freeman said. “This is the kind of person that does not need to wear a badge.”