Pender County Sheriff responds to Dept. Of Labor letter about detaining suspect in dog cage

Pender County Sheriff responds to Dept. Of Labor letter about detaining suspect in dog cage
Published: Apr. 21, 2022 at 2:06 PM EDT
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PENDER COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - Pender County Sheriff Alan Cutler has responded to a letter from the North Carolina Department of Labor, questioning a February arrest during which a suspect escaped custody after being detained in the dog cage of a sheriff’s office K-9 vehicle.

In the three-page letter, Cutler notes that a patrol deputy was using a K-9 vehicle because his regular cruiser was in the shop for repairs. That deputy was dispatched to a domestic incident in Hampstead, and ended up detaining a male and female suspects after stopping them in the Lowe’s Foods parking lot.

The female suspect was placed in the detainee holding area of a female deputy’s vehicle. Two deputies and an off-duty detective who was also on scene then had to struggle with the combative male suspect, before placing him in the kennel area of a Dodge Charger designed for a K-9 handler.

“All three of the on-scene deputies were involved in the struggle with the male arrestee,” Sheriff Cutler explained in his letter to the Department of Labor. “These deputies were most likely winded by the encounter. Accordingly, they opted under exigent circumstances for the only area of confinement available to them in their estimation that had ample room to maneuver a combative subject who was actively resisting. Given the intensity of the struggle... choosing the largest area of confinement where swift entry and departure by deputies for their safety was possible while they manhandled the arrestee into position was not an unreasonable decision.”

The female deputy involved in the arrest says she injured her back during the struggle. Body camera video of the incident released to WECT through court order shows deputies waiting for nearly a half-hour for back-up to arrive, so they would have a suitable car to transport the detainee to jail. While the sheriff stands by the use of a K-9 vehicle for use as a back-up patrol car, he previously explained that it could not be used for transporting a suspect because there are no seats or seatbelts in the back of the vehicle.

While deputies waited for back-up, the suspect was able to remove the dog door on the kennel area of the K-9 vehicle, crawl into the front of the Dodge Charger, and escape through the front door with the gun deputies say they had confiscated from him. Sheriff Cutler maintains the escape was due to lack of active supervision by the deputies on scene, not inadequate equipment that the deputies have blamed for the incident.

“The ultimate decision by the two patrol deputies to make this unconventional confinement of the arrestee more than a temporary solution, and failure to supervise the arrestee, is the crux of the problem. The decision-making by these two patrol deputies gave rise to this being an ‘incident’ rather than a routine arrest,” Sheriff Cutler wrote in an April 20th letter.

“After re-grouping and time to catch their breath, the patrol deputies involved in the struggle chose not to re-engage the arrestee and move him to a more appropriate area. The deputies did not express urgency by radio or telephone to dispatch or to other deputies of the need for additional manpower to make a transfer. In fact, the patrol deputies by size, weight, and training should have been able to make this transfer on their own.”

“The transport cage in the other patrol vehicle on scene became available when the female [suspect] was released on scene. The off-duty detective left the scene shortly after the arrest. However, he briefly reappeared on scene to convey additional crime scene information to patrol deputies. These patrol deputies did not seek his assistance to make such a transfer before he departed the scene a second time. A casual attitude about the situation and its seriousness seemed to permeate the decision making by these patrol deputies as evidenced by available body camera recordings.”

The sheriff says an ongoing internal investigation has indicated that the deputies knew the suspect had slipped his handcuffs from behind his back to the front of his body while in the K-9 confinement area. Deputies say the window tint on the K-9 vehicle was so dark it made it hard to observe the suspect once he was inside the vehicle.

“The body camera footage indicates the arrestee activating various vehicle controls from the driver area of K-9 vehicle, resulting in brake lights being applied, lights going off, gas cap opening, and possibly the vehicle trunk lid opening in response to arrestee manipulation,” Sheriff Cutler wrote of other clues he felt the deputies missed that indicated the suspect was in danger of escaping.

The Sheriff told the Department of Labor that no hazard exists due to the ongoing use of the K-9 vehicle as a back-up patrol vehicle. He explains that PCSO policy states that if officers find themselves needing to transport a prisoner when they don’t have a dividing cage, “the person in custody will be placed in the front passenger seat, belted in, with hands cuffed.” He notes this is an approved and commonly practiced means of transport in law enforcement vehicles that do not have a dividing cage.

“The use of the K-9 vehicle is within the policy of the Pender County Sheriff’s Office and can be used by any deputy to perform their normal duties, to include transporting a prisoner in a safe manner,” the Sheriff’s letter continues. “Another vehicle with a prisoner cage with proper seating and seat belt was available for use and was not utilized by deputies on scene.”

Deputies involved in the arrest say the suspect was too combative to safely transport in the front seat of the vehicle, and they needed backup to safely transport the suspect to another vehicle.

In terms of corrective action, the Sheriff told state officials the incident has been discussed with the rest of his deputies.

“As this incident appears to be one related to the decision making of particular deputies who are no longer employees of Pender County, there does not appear to be any corrective action necessary other than using this event as a training aide for deputies to emphasize the importance of following existing policies and being vigilant in their supervision of detainees. It is quite apparent that the escape of this arrestee is due to the actions and omissions of the particular deputies involved and not due to a lack of proper equipment or policies being in place,” Sheriff Cutler’s letter concludes.

The deputies involved both resigned after being placed on administrative leave following the escape. They say they felt forced to do so, and are pursuing legal action against the department for lack of due process following the incident.

While the Sheriff says the deputies did not request an urgent need for back-up, the deputies say they requested back-up from Surf City Police twice after encountering the combative suspect. Two other Pender County Sheriff’s Office deputies arrived about a half-hour after the suspect was detained to help transport him to another vehicle. It was at that point they realized he’d escaped.

At last check, the escapee is still at-large. Authorities say they know who he is, but despite repeated requests, they have not released the suspect’s name to WECT.

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