Editorials

A wrong turn in Harnett County

N&O investigation: Deadly Force

A warrantless entry, an innocent man shot dead. A squad of Harnett County deputies who spread fear south and west of the Cape Fear River. A homicide in jail, caught on tape, yet somehow kept under wraps. Who polices the sheriff's office?
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A warrantless entry, an innocent man shot dead. A squad of Harnett County deputies who spread fear south and west of the Cape Fear River. A homicide in jail, caught on tape, yet somehow kept under wraps. Who polices the sheriff's office?

Law enforcement officers are not, despite what they may be called on the streets, “the law.” They are, like everyone else, subject to the law. When they place themselves above it, they break the law.

Somehow, in rural Harnett County 30 miles south of Raleigh, some in law enforcement lost sight of their proper role. They became the law or paid little attention to it. Those failures extended from deputies who stormed a home without a warrant and fatally shot a man in a struggle, to jailers who fired a stun gun at an inmate and left him to die on a cell floor, to a sheriff who heard about or saw video of these incidents without disciplining the officers and guards involved.

This culture of abuse and neglect was documented by News & Observer reporter Mandy Locke in a four-part series, “Deadly Force.” Citizens’ complaints about treatment by deputies were often ignored, but Locke listened and investigated. Now, finally, it appears that the bad behavior of some deputies and its tolerance by senior officials are about to end. Former Sheriff Larry Rollins recently resigned citing personal reasons. Federal officials are investigating whether some deputies violated civil rights laws. And a county accustomed to little scrutiny now has its law enforcement lapses under the glare of media attention.

The “Deadly Force” series reveals that North Carolina’s reliance on elected sheriffs can provide more insularity than accountability. A powerful sheriff who’s a major employer in a rural county can be hard to challenge and harder to unseat. That’s when the law begins to become what they say it is and enforcement is shaped by favors and feuds. An appointed police chief who answers to elected officials is less vulnerable to such distortions of the law and its enforcement.

The series also shows the damage that reckless officers can do not only to the trust of their community but to the image of their fellow officers. Harnett County no doubt has many dedicated, fair and caring deputies whose reputations suffer because of the acts of their cowboy peers. Supervisors or sheriffs who think they’re supporting their officers by not reining in or firing overzealous or just plain mean deputies do a disservice to the entire force.

Finally, in a time when much attention has focused on the mistreatment of African-Americans by police, the series shows that the problem is not limited to race. Low-income people of all races, and especially those with past brushes with the law, are vulnerable to officers who know the people they mistreat lack the resources to press a complaint or the standing to be taken seriously.

The N&O series focused on Harnett County, but it reveals a more pervasive problem that occurs when sheriffs are not held to account and law enforcement becomes “the law” unto itself.

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