State closes case after complaint about suspect detained in dog cage

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The deputy's regular patrol vehicle was in the shop, and he was given a K-9 vehicle to use...
The deputy's regular patrol vehicle was in the shop, and he was given a K-9 vehicle to use before making arrest.(Pender County Sheriff's Office)
Published: Jul. 7, 2022 at 12:26 PM EDT
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PENDER COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - The North Carolina Department of Labor (NCDL) has closed its case looking into conditions that contributed to a suspect’s escape from custody of Pender County Sheriff’s deputies. On February 27, following a domestic violence call, that suspect was detained in the dog cage of a deputy’s K-9 vehicle. While deputies waited for backup, authorities say the suspect got out of the vehicle and managed to retrieve his gun, his drugs, and his money before he fled.

“Based on the investigation, the [Occupational Safety and Health] Division feels the case can be closed on the grounds that the hazardous conditions have been corrected (or no longer exist),” the NCDL District Supervisor wrote in a letter to the person who filed the complaint, notifying them of the outcome. The name of the complainant is redacted from the letter.

The NCDL opened its investigation in April, following the botched arrest in Hampstead. 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 that 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.

The deputies involved both resigned after being placed on administrative leave following the escape. They said they felt forced to do so and were pursuing legal action against the department for lack of due process following the incident. They also said they didn’t feel they had the right equipment to do their job properly, and if they had a standard patrol car, the escape and subsequent fallout would never have happened.

Pender County Sheriff Alan Cutler disagreed, and thought the escape was a result of lack of close supervision, not improper equipment.

“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 to the DOL, explaining why the complaint against his department did not merit an investigation.

“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 deputies told WECT that they requested back-up from Surf City Police twice after encountering the combative suspect, but no units were available to respond. They also noted that the female deputy injured her back while detaining the combative suspect, deterring an attempt to move him again without more assistance.

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 explained 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 noted 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 continued. 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 concluded.

WECT spoke to one of the deputies involved, who said they were disappointed in the State’s decision to close the case without further intervention. They said that allowing the department to continue using K-9 vehicles as backup patrol cars continues to put deputies in a risky position.

Sheriff Cutler declined to provide any additional comment to those he has already shared on the situation now that the case has been closed.

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