The Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office will suspend an off-duty undercover deputy accused in a road rage incident – without pay – for an unspecified period, Sheriff Van Duncan announced today. Duncan said that the deputy’s remarks to 911 dispatchers had been unprofessional.
On July 9, around 7 p.m., Clyde resident Julie Brown claimed she was cut off by an undercover sheriff’s deputy, off-duty and driving his personal vehicle, at the intersection of Patton Avenue and Leicester Highway. After she blew her horn at him, he got out of his vehicle and approached hers before getting back in his and following her down the road.
Brown and the deputy’s account (backed up by his wife and child, who were both in his vehicle) differ significantly. She claims that when he left his vehicle, he pounded on her windows and tried to open her truck. He maintained in his account that she was making obscene gestures, something she denies. The deputy and Brown both called 911, the deputy after first calling the Sheriff’s office. In his 911 call, the deputy can be heard saying that “she wants to act all stupid, so I want to show her how stupid she is when she finds out who I am” and, when informed there are no units nearby, “I’ll just get her tag number down and pay her a visit.”
That’s where his actions crossed the line, Duncan said.
“Once he got on the phone, assessed tag information through our criminal justice systems, he was acting as a police officer,” Duncan said. “He should have been communicating in a professional manner, which he did not. We are taking action that will involve corrective training, it will involve a written reprimand that will result in days of suspension without pay.”
Normally, Duncan added, he would not discuss a personnel incident, but in this case the deputy signed a waiver allowing him to do so.
When asked, Duncan refused to comment on the length of the suspension – or if he’d had any similar complaints regarding the deputy. But he added that a written suspension stays in a deputy’s file for six months and will bar him from pursuing a promotion in that time. The deputy will not be immediately suspended, as he’s currently out of town at a pre-scheduled workshop, Lt. Ross Dillingham confirmed
“I’m not going to discuss [how many] days or how much it costs him salary-wise,” he said. “I can’t get into his personnel issues and files. I can tell you that anything in his file was reviewed when determining his credibility and his past as to if we have a problem with this officer that played into this investigation. If there had been substantiated claims in the past that alluded to this kind of behavior they would have been taken into account.”
The officer has been employed at the Sheriff’s Office for 12 years.
Brown has criticized the conduct of the Asheville Police Department, who responded to her call, asserting that they should have stopped the deputy and heeded her request to see if he’d left fingerprints on her truck. The APD refused to press charges, saying there were no witnesses to Brown’s accusations, and instead referred the matter to the sheriff’s office as a personnel issue.
At the press conference, Sheriff’s Lt. Kim Martin read an account of the investigation’s finding, including noting that Brown and the deputy’s accounts varied at several points. The Sheriff’s Personnel Advisory Committee, a group of five members of the public, reviewed the information and unanimously agreed with Duncan’s course of action, he said.
“There’s really no playbook to deal with a complaint like this,” he said, though he did add that the Office of Professional Standards, which handles complaints that the Sheriff’s Office receives, looked into 74 complaints in 2007 and 63 in 2008 and, when the complaint was sustained (as 30 were in 2007 and 24 in 2008), took steps ranging from a reprimand to termination.
“Every complaint we receive we consider very serious in nature, because we deal in issues of the public trust and we want to make sure the public feels we’re investigating these things thoroughly,” Duncan said. “We’ve terminated several officers.”
If there had been witnesses or evidence that showed the deputy trying to open Brown’s car and batter on her windows, Duncan noted, it would have been cause for termination and possible criminal charges. However, he said, examination of security cameras from surrounding businesses and attempts to find other witnesses of the incident turned up nothing to conclusively back up Brown or the deputy.
“I think there’s definitely been some very teachable moments from this situation for our Sheriff’s office,” he said. “We need to take a really hard look at how we communicate, how it’s perceived and learn a lesson from this thing.”
He added that “I’m sure she [Brown] was very afraid and that it was stressful and hard on her. For that situation, that’s very unfortunate. I think it’s been stressful for everyone involved.”
Brown said she was happy about the sheriff’s office taking action, but still had problems with law enforcement’s handling of the incident.
“I’m glad that something’s being done, that he [the deputy] will get help with anger management,” Brown told Xpress. “This whole thing was handled really, really badly. If the APD had pulled him [the deputy] over, if they had given him a sobriety test, if they’d bothered to check for evidence, we might have some answers here. I think they just let him go because he was a cop — that’s not justice.”
Brown claims she’s lost her job over the case, as “I worked at a Christian organization and there’s this deputy out there saying I’m making obscene gestures and acting like a maniac, so they didn’t want me representing them. I’ve paid a much higher price than this deputy, just because I did what I thought was right. I just hope this has made things a little safer out there than if I’d done nothing. I can’t say I’ve got no regrets.”
Brown said she’s open to talking with Duncan directly about the case, but hasn’t been contacted by him yet.
Video of the press conference is below.
—David Forbes, staff writer