The North Carolina chapter of the NAACP has asked U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to send federal officials to Harnett County to protect residents from the deputies sworn to protect them.
The NAACP cites an News & Observer investigation, “Deadly Force,” in its request for federal intervention. The series highlighted several incidents in which residents say they have been battered or harassed by Harnett sheriff's deputies. Two men died; others have been shot with Tasers, sprayed with toxic pepper spray, punched and kicked.
“This means the problem is systematic,” Rev. William J. Barber II, state president of the NAACP, told a crowd of media and relatives of those who lost loved ones at the hands of Harnett County law enforcement. The NAACP held a press conference at the county courthouse in Lillington Monday morning.
“Who polices the Sheriff’s Office?” Barber asked.
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The N&O spoke to more than a dozen residents and relatives this year who said they encountered or witnessed deputies harming or harrassing people. They were old and young, black and white, veterans and those with criminal records. Nearly all were poor.
Family members of some victims stood behind Barber as he spoke. Dolly Griggs, mother of Christian Griggs, told the crowd that her son’s 2013 death was covered up by Harnett deputies. A cousin of Brandon Bethea, who died after being shot with a Taser by a Harnett detention officer while being held in the jail in March 2011, broke into tears as she tried to explain how he was left to die in a cell. Carmen Cardwell, the sister-in-law of John Livingston, told the crowd that Sheriff’s Deputy Nicholas Kehagias had not been punished for killing Livingston.
Livingston was “the wrong man, it was the wrong house, wrong everything. Harnett County hasn’t done anything,” Cardwell said.
The Department of Justice has already opened an inquiry into at least two cases in Harnett County. Barber urged them to widen their investigation, saying that picking only a few cases would be like “putting a bandaid on cancer.”
“We need a comprehensive diagnosis,” Barber said.
John Bruce, acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina, told the N&O last month that federal prosecutors have opened a criminal civil rights investigation into the death of Livingston. Federal officials have declined to speak further about the scope of their work in Harnett County.
The Griggs family has been assured by federal prosecutors that the death of their son, Christian, will also be reviewed. Griggs was shot and killed by his father-in-law in 2013. No charges were brought; Griggs’ parents have accused the sheriff’s office of botching the investigation into their son’s death.
The justice department has declined to say whether it will investigate more broadly in Harnett County. NAACP leaders say a limited review of select cases is not enough.
Barber pointed to the death of Bethea, who died in the Harnett County jail after a detention officer repeatedly shot him with a Taser. Larry Rollins, then the sheriff, said Bethea was shot during an altercation.
The N&O obtained and broadcast an exclusive surveillance video of Bethea’s death. The video shows Bethea backing away as a detention officer shot him; he was shot twice more while he was on his stomach surrounded by guards. He stopped moving in the 20 minutes detention officers left him alone in a cell.
Sheriff’s Office leaders have said that they were unaware of many of the incidents that The N&O has reported.
Locke: 919-829-8927 or @MandyLockeNews