Hiring red flags, officer safety cited as concerns in Southport police audit

Hiring red flags, officer safety cited as concerns in Southport police audit
Department had closed for 3 months after arrest of police chief and lieutenant.

SOUTHPORT, NC (WECT) - A lengthy independent audit of the Southport Police Department reveals an internal culture clash among officers, with differing views on how to police the Brunswick County community.

Some of those interviews, which included current and former officers, revealed times in which inadequate staffing forced the sole officer working to remain in town, relying on other law enforcement agencies to help process arrests. The department’s hiring process also received scrutiny, with the audit describing how the town had a reputation for hiring officers who had problems at other agencies.

The need for the audit sprung out of the shocking arrests earlier this year of the top two law enforcement officers with the city police department – Chief Gary Smith and Lieutenant Michael Christian Simmons. Both men face charges of conspiracy to obtain property by false pretenses, willful failure to discharge duties and obstruction of justice. The pair are accused of working a side job with a local transport company while also on the clock for the city of Southport. Smith and Simmons have since been terminated, with the failure to participate in this audit being cited as the reason.

Gary Smith, left, and Michael Simmons (Source: Brunswick County Sheriff's Office)
Gary Smith, left, and Michael Simmons (Source: Brunswick County Sheriff's Office)

Thursday night, Town Manager Bruce Oakley presented the general findings of the recently completed audit to council members.

“The report was very helpful in pointing out issues and concerns in the department and providing us recommendations on how to move forward,” Bruce Oakley commented by email. “Our new Chief has already started taking steps to correct the issues and is moving forward on the recommendations.”

The audit, conducted by security firm US ISS Agency, LLC out of Huntersville, NC, labeled four areas of concern with specific examples.

  1. Lack of leadership within the police department. 
  2. Inadequate command and control of critical high-risk activities.
  3. Inadequate hiring and background screening practices.
  4. Inconsistent application of critical policies. 

The audit encouraged the new leadership in Southport to clearly communicate expectations for those in the department. Some officers described a “Mayberry-esque” approach to policing the town, while others preferred a more enforcement-based policing tactic.

“Tension exists in the departmental culture as some officers have differing views of policing in the city than other officers and command. ISS found resentment among some officers toward the chief.”

The audit points out areas of concern with evidence storage and access to those areas, including a lack of consistent documentation for found property. An example cited in the report indicated the discovery of an envelope with a woman’s diamond ring on it sitting on the chief’s desk, with a note of who found it and where they found it.

Officer safety was cited as a concern with staffing levels that were bare bones at times.

“Officers recounted numerous occasions when there was only one officer working on a shift and they had to rely on neighboring jurisdictions for backup.”

The recruitment of officers often failed to include proper background checks, according to the findings.

“Some files had obvious red flags for the candidates with only a cursory investigation of these issues documented.”

The entire police department was on a hiatus for three months with the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office providing oversight. In November, Todd Coring took his oath as the new chief for Southport and the department resumed its duties policing the town.

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