In the wake of allegations of deputy misconduct and lack of oversight by local elected law enforcement, Harnett County residents are left with a question: Who will help us?
At least two families have been assured that federal authorities will be coming to Harnett County to investigate whether civil rights were violated by the sheriff’s office. Others still wait for answers.
U.S. Department of Justice officials declined Wednesday to say how far their inquiry into criminal civil rights violations within Harnett County would go.
“While the department does not comment or speculate on whether it will take law enforcement actions, the Civil Rights Division considers information from a wide range of sources, including media reports, in determining whether to open an investigation,” said Dena Iverson, a department spokeswoman in Washington.
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The federal attention in Harnett County, a rural community 30 miles south of Raleigh, comes in the wake of a News & Observer investigation, “Deadly Force,” into misconduct within the sheriff’s office.
Two men died at the hands of law enforcement, including Brandon Bethea, an inmate in the jail who was repeatedly shot with a Taser. At least a half dozen other residents say they have been battered or harassed by deputies.
John Bruce, acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina, told The N&O last month that federal officials had launched a criminal civil rights investigation into the death of John Livingston. The deputy who shot Livingston, Nicholas Kehagias, entered Livingston’s home without a warrant. A struggle ensued, and Kehagias shot him three times.
Since 2008, the Justice Department has launched 23 criminal civil rights investigations into law enforcement agencies. The division is currently enforcing rules and reforms within 18 police or sheriff’s departments across the nation, most recently in Ferguson, Mo., where an officer-involved shooting incited violence and unrest.
‘You have no voice’
At least one other family received assurances of help this week from a federal prosecutor it has begged for intervention since 2014.
Dolly Griggs is the mother of Christian Griggs, who was shot and killed by his father-in-law in October 2013. She said a federal prosecutor assured her late Monday that the Department of Justice had opened a criminal civil rights investigation into Griggs’ death.
Members of the Griggs family have criticized the sheriff’s office for what they believed to be a poor investigation into their son’s death. The shooter was not charged.
“When they came out to house that day, they didn’t see Christian as a person who deserved justice; they saw his color,” said Dolly Griggs, whose family is black. The shooter, Pat Chisenhall, is white.
“If you are poor or minority in this county, you have no voice,” she said.
Chisenhall has said he was protecting his daughter from Christian Griggs, her estranged husband.
The problems in Harnett County illuminate the significant autonomy of local sheriffs and district attorneys. No other state law enforcement agency has the authority to open an investigation into police misconduct unless asked to do so by local authorities.
Shannon O’Toole, spokesman for the State Bureau of Investigation, said Wednesday that it has not been asked to look further into problems at the sheriff’s office but that the agency would gladly get involved if asked.
“There must be mechanism in place for citizens to bring their complaints forward and have faith that it will be looked at like a valid complaint,” O’Toole said.
Seeking SBI reports
The N&O this week revealed incidents in which Harnett deputies, including Kehagias, entered homes without warrants. Residents told of being shot with Tasers, sprayed with toxic pepper spray, kicked and punched. Others said they were followed or harassed by deputies.
Those who complained to the sheriff’s office were ignored. They also got no help at the district attorney’s office. District Attorney Vernon Stewart has vowed to reform his office’s system of handling complaints from residents.
Stewart said Wednesday that he will work hard to implement those changes. He has declined to release the SBI investigative reports in the deaths of Livingston and Bethea.
Regardless of whether federal or state authorities intervene, Harnett County will likely be exposed to protracted civil litigation.
Robert Zaytoun, a civil litigator from Raleigh, and Lillington lawyer Jesse Jones are preparing to file a federal lawsuit on behalf of Livingston’s family and several other county residents who say they have been harmed by sheriff’s deputies.
Zaytoun filed a petition last month seeking records, including the SBI investigative report into Livingston’s death. A hearing is set for May 16. He said he will not consent to any orders requiring that the report be guarded under a protective order.
“So much has been concealed over a period of time in Harnett County that bringing to light all of this is not only important for the family of John Livingston but for the entire community,” Zaytoun said. “The right side of this now is full disclosure.”
What’s next for Kehagias?
A Harnett County grand jury last month declined to indict Deputy Nicholas Kehagias for second-degree murder in the death of John Livingston. District Attorney Vernon Stewart, who submitted the request for criminal charges against Kehagias, said he has closed the case and will not try it again.
In February, Stewart asked the state attorney general’s office to take over the case because of a potential conflict involving Stewart’s employment of the relative of one of the deputies present at Livingston’s home the night he was shot.
Attorney General Roy Cooper’s office declined to take the case, saying it had limited resources and that Stewart’s conflict was not significant.
If the federal Department of Justice finds Kehagias deprived Livingston or others of their civil rights while acting as a law enforcement officer, he could be prosecuted in federal court.