Dept. of Labor involved in sheriff’s use of K-9 vehicle to detain suspects

Suspect escaped after being detained in vehicle’s dog cage
The deputy’s regular patrol car was in the shop that day, and he was issued a K-9 handler’s car to use as a substitute
Published: Apr. 11, 2022 at 2:28 PM EDT
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PENDER COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - Days after WECT reported on a botched arrest that led to a suspect’s escape, the North Carolina Department of Labor (NCDOL) wrote a letter to Pender County Sheriff Alan Cutler, asking him to review the use of K-9 vehicles to detain suspects.

The debate over whether K-9 vehicles should be used for routine patrols came to the forefront on Feb. 27. Pender County Sheriff’s deputies were dispatched to a domestic violence call in Hampstead, and detained one of the suspects involved in the kennel area of a K-9 handler’s car. The deputy’s regular patrol car was in the shop that day, and he was issued a K-9 handler’s car to use as a substitute.

Deputies said the male suspect involved in the domestic dispute was combative, and they needed a place to put him once he was handcuffed. They said they were advised by a supervisor on scene that “a cage is a cage,” and it was okay to detain the suspect in the back of the Dodge Charger K-9 unit. While it has plenty of space, the back of that vehicle has no seat or seat belts and is designed to hold a dog.

Normally, deputies would have left immediately for the jail after making the arrest. But because they could not legally transport the suspect without a seatbelt, they waited for approximately half an hour for backup to arrive with a vehicle designed to hold people. While they waited, standing next to another car nearby, the suspect escaped. He appears to have crawled through the dog door of the K-9 unit to the front seat of the patrol car. Authorities say he retrieved his gun, his drugs, and his money in the process.

Despite the escape, Sheriff Cutler told WECT that use of the K-9 vehicle was an acceptable way to detain a suspect, so long as the vehicle was not used to transport a suspect. He blamed the lack of more active supervision by the deputies for the escape, and dismissed concerns it was an inadequate equipment issue.

The NCDOL confirms it received a complaint on April 1 alleging “several hazards” at the PCSO. According to a document obtained by WECT, those hazards include the use of a K-9 vehicle to detain suspects, deputies not wearing reflective gear on traffic calls, and not having enough gloves and protective gear on hand for employees.

After making Sheriff Cutler aware of the nature of the complaints against his office, the DOL advised in an April 5 letter to him, “We have not determined wither the hazards, as alleged, exist at your workplace; and we are not conducting an inspection, at this time. However, since the allegations of violations have been made, you should investigate the alleged conditions and make any necessary corrections or modifications. Within 7 working days of your receipt of this letter, please advise us, in writing, by certified mail, or submitting electronically of your finding and of the action you have taken. Your response should be detailed stating specifically what action you have taken to correct each hazard.”

The NCDOL requested that a copy of their letter and the sheriff’s response to it be posted where it would be easily accessible for employees to read.

When contacted for comment about the letter on April 11, a sheriff’s spokesperson said they yet to receive a copy. WECT provided them a copy that we had obtained, but they have not provided any comment so far, nor had they responded to the DOL at time of this publication.

“Our OSH (Occupational Safety and Health) Division has not yet received confirmation of receipt or a response from the employer. The complaint is still an open investigation and nothing is currently releasable at this time,” a DOL spokesperson informed WECT when contacted for comment.

They noted they could provided a redacted copy of the complaint file after it is closed.

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