The at-will firing of deputies, there is a much better way | Beaufort County Now | Deputies should not have to give up their right to due process when they put on a badge

Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)

By:  Hood Richardson

A lot of people were surprised by the recent firing of at least five employees of the Beaufort County Sheriff’s office.  Not all of these employees were sworn deputies.  The number of sworn deputies discharged is of importance because Sheriff Coleman, without knowing what he was doing, fired at least 12 deputies when he refused to provide security services to the School System. The number of sworn deputies in the Sheriff’s department is set by the Board of County Commissioners.

Those 12 positions should not be funded in the budget year that begins July 1 of 2021.  There is a lot of turmoil in the Sheriff’s Department with Coleman and some of the Commissioners trying to invent additional sworn deputy positions for the coming year.  Because of the shaky management provided by Coleman, some employees are in the process of obtaining jobs at other places.  With the recent firings and others seeking employment elsewhere, it is unknown exactly how many of the 12 sworn deputy positions have actually been vacated.

I will be watching and oppose the creation of new deputy positions.  My reason is that Coleman has never presented any report or justification either orally or in writing as to why he needs more deputies.  I made the request for this information from Coleman in a public meeting.  There has been a lot of talk by the Sheriff about the need for deputies to transport prisoners either to or from Beaufort County.   This is pure hokum.  We are down from more than 100  prisoners a year ago to less than 50 with only two or three held out of county.  So why do we need all this help to transport prisoners?  But who knows?  We never get any solid data from Coleman.

The firing of the five employees was done crudely and with no warning or notice.  It is true that North Carolina is what is known as an “at will state”.  That is, in the absence of a written contract, either the employee or the employer may stop employment with literally no notice.  However, most employers, including Beaufort County, have a personnel policy that is designed to be fair to all employees.  That is, we do not terminate the employment without giving warnings and notices to employees.  We have an appeals process that allows the employee to correct his deficiencies.  By precedent that is well litigated, and the general statutes, the Sheriff may discharge any deputy without notice for any reason.  All employees in other departments are protected by personnel policy from this insulting behavior. The general statute approves only deputies being subject to the arbitrary and capricious action of a sheriff.

There are family connections among those fired.  There are several rumors about what those connections mean.  One employee was the son in law of a school board member.  Some say that Coleman is doing some payback for his recent war with the School Board.  Four people are from one family.  Some say Coleman is paying back for a family member who is politically active and is associated with the commissioners serving on the Beaufort County Police Committee.  These things are always there when people hold politically appointed jobs (Yes all the jobs in the Sheriff’s Department are political appointments). All of this goes away with a county police force.

Employees of a Beaufort County Police Department would be protected under the County personnel policy.  They would not be deputies.  They would be sworn law enforcement officers.  Their terms of service and discipline would be determined by the personnel manual, administered by a hired (not elected) Police Chief, with review by the County Manager and the police commission.  Ultimately the elected Board of Commissioners could over ride, or change policy.  Job security like this should allow us to hire high quality personnel.

The present system of providing law enforcement in 98 counties (we have 100 counties)   puts one person in total charge.  All hiring, firing and decisions about which crimes would be investigated is in the hands of one person.  There is much abuse.  Putting 98 elected sheriffs (individuals) in charge of law enforcement gives us 98 different opinions as to what he law is, how to enforce the law, and provides many opportunities for preferential treatment. There are plenty of occasions when what the sheriff thinks has a huge effect on testimony, investigative intensity, and favoritism.  All of this gets in the way of deputies honesty and ethics in doing their job.

All of this goes away with a county police force.  Everyone gets treated fairly. 

There is no system of checks and balances with a sheriff in charge of law enforcement.  One man rules. With a county police department we would have a chief, a manager, a three person police commission, and seven commissioners (12 people), all cross checking each other.  Employees would not be in fear of losing their job if they did not make things come out the way any one of these people wanted them to.

Another benefit to a county police department would be a stable work force and working conditions, with a professional forensics department.   We would rotate people into and out of the narcotics squad.   Presently we do not have dedicated forensics people and it is very bad practice to keep people on narcotics for more than two or three years.

Every citizen and employee deserves the same fair and unbiased treatment from law enforcement.  Insuring due process is simply the right thing to do.

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