As we continue providing information to the community as to the state of our local government, this article will begin exploring a critical component of the legal system that is deeply intertwined with many of the issues previously discussed – the local police officers employed by the Sheriff’s Office.
The specific focus of this article is to describe the contractual arrangements between the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office and various federal investigatory entities, pursuant to which local police officers are vested with authority to act federal officers. Although intended to improve law enforcement capabilities and effectiveness, these arrangements create opportunities for the Sheriff’s Office and its officers that are deputized by federal agencies to ignore State and local laws, as well as take actions with no accountability to the people.
The most problematic aspect of these arrangements, however, is the ability of deputized local officers to avoid any oversight by the federal entities responsible for supervising these officers to ensure they do not abuse the federal authority entrusted to them.
As we will begin discussing in this article, serious concerns exist as to these issues with respect to the Sheriff’s Office and its officers, which have resulted in destructive and severe consequences to the most vulnerable members of our community.
FEDERAL AGENCIES “DEPUTIZE” LOCAL POLICE OFFICERS, DRASTICALLY EXPANDING THEIR AUTHORITY
In a practice largely unknown to most citizens across the United States, federal governmental entities, such as the Drug Enforcement Agency (“DEA”), Federal Bureau of Investigations (“FBI”), United States Marshals (“US Marshals”), Department of Homeland Security, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (“ATF”), and other federal entities, often enter into formal agreements with local police departments in which the federal agencies deputize local police officer to act as federal agents.
While the intended purpose of these arrangements is to strengthen the federal and state relationships in order to create a more robust and effective law enforcement community, the deputization of local police officers (1) drastically expands their authority; (2) renders them unaccountable to the communities in which they operate; and (3) provides countless opportunities for abuse and misconduct.
Typically, officers employed by a local North Carolina police department are only allowed to engage in law enforcement activities within a clearly defined geographic area. They are also constrained by State laws and local rules in their jurisdiction, such as, for example, being required to wear body cameras, being prohibited from seizing cash proceeds or other assets from any individuals suspected of engaging in drug activities without contemporaneously arresting and/or charging those individuals for the suspected crime, etc.
When a local police department partners with a federal agency, however, the state and local mandates and prohibitions are no longer applicable to any local officers deputized as federal agents. Except when specifically noted in these agreements, deputized federal officers are governed solely by federal law, which drastically expands their power and authority and, in many cases, reduces the protections available to citizens under state laws.
For example, most federal agencies prohibit the use of body cameras regardless of whether the state or local police department has such a requirement. Federal law also allows law enforcement officers to seize cash and other proceeds suspected of being involved with drug trafficking without pressing charges or arresting the suspect. North Carolina prohibits such seizures without an accompanying charge and/or arrest.
In theory, this arrangement has the potential to drastically improve efforts to address criminal activities that affect multiple jurisdictions that local police departments would otherwise lack authority to address, such as terrorism, human trafficking rings, and, particularly, drug trafficking enterprises.
In practice, however, these arrangements create severe risks that local deputized officers may exploit their authority, improperly utilize otherwise unavailable investigatory tools (such as cell site simulators – frequently referred to as Stingrays – that are capable of intercepting all phone calls, text messages, etc. without a warrant or court order), and/or take actions designed to actively avoid any oversight role of the deputizing federal agency. These risks are compounded by the fact that deputized local officers often have access to databases and/or other information that would otherwise only be accessible to the federal agency, which can be used by local deputized officers to undermine, rather than assist, efforts of the deputizing federal agency.
INADEQUATE SUPERVISION AND BACKGROUND CHECKS PROVIDE OPPORTUNITIES FOR ABUSE
The federal agency that permits local police officers to exercise federal authority though the deputization process is responsible for all supervision of those officers. This oversight is often minimal or, as has occurred in Rutherford County, nearly non-existent.
One impediment to meaningful supervision is that the supervising federal agents continue to operate out of their own offices that, in many cases, may be hours away from where the deputized local officer is located. Without the physical presence of a supervising federal agent, direct oversight from observations and discussions with individuals in the community and/or other local officers is rare. The inability to actively oversee and monitor the conduct of deputized local officers creates a situation in which these officers are only accountable to the supervising agent insofar as the deputized agent is honest in what he/she reports to the supervising agent. The opportunities for deputized local officials to engage in improper behavior in this context are particularly pronounced.
In light of these supervisory issues, the most significant factor in preventing abusive practices by a deputized local officer is evaluating the background, credentials, and character of the officers being considered for deputization.
Unfortunately, the vetting process for prospective federal agents as compared to prospective deputized local officers is drastically different.
Because of the amount of power and authority yielded by employees of federal criminal investigatory agencies, federal agencies, such as the FBI, DEA, etc., have extraordinarily stringent standards with respect to the educational (college or more advanced degrees) and technical skill (highly demanding physical examinations and abilities, specialized tactical training, etc.) levels of all of their agents. Additionally, the background checks for all federal law enforcement agents are among the most comprehensive and thorough of any public or private employer in the world. In what is typically a year or more-long process, every aspect of a prospective federal agent’s life is examined and even the most minor incidents may result in disqualification, e.g., incidents of violent behavior, illegal drug use, criminal behavior of any kind, etc.
See Federal Government Requirements for Law Enforcement Careers, https://www.federallawenforcement.org/careers/
In contrast, there is little standardization for background checks involving local police officers across any given state, including North Carolina. In Rutherford County, the employment criteria for prospective officers with the Sheriff’s Office includes a high school diploma (or GED), basic law enforcement training (a program frequently completed at Isothermal Community College within a four (4) month time period), and a standard background investigation conducted by the SBI. According to several current and former Sheriff’s Office officers, the Sheriff’s Office rarely contacts any personal references unless the SBI background check reflects any matters of serious concern. Misconduct, criminal activity, and/or illegal drug use that would automatically disqualify and individual from serving as a federal agent rarely have similar effects on a prospective local police officer.
See North Carolina Requirements for Law Enforcement Careers, https://ncdoj.gov/law-enforcement-training/criminal-justice/officer-certification-programs/law-enforcement-certification-applicants/#:~:text=%20Every%20law%20enforcement%20officer%20employed%20by%20an,state%20exam.%206%20A%20felony%3B%20or%20More%20
The divergent standards between federal agencies and local agencies are based solely on the magnitude of responsibility and power entrusted to the officers at issue.
Actions taken by federal agents have the potential to impact citizens across the country, as well as issues affecting nationwide issues and/or policies. While appropriate actions taken by federal agents can result in widespread positive benefits, misconduct of federal agents have the potential to be widespread and catastrophic.
Actions taken by local officials tend to impact only a small number of individuals and rarely have widespread policy or societal implications. While harmful, wrongful actions by local police officials tend to be contained and less likely to create irreparable damage to entire communities.
When deputized local agents are vested with federal authority, but not properly monitored and/or supervised, officers with troubling backgrounds are placed in a position to utilize the extraordinary power typically restricted to a select group of heavily monitored individuals to engage in unlawful conduct with no discernible limit to the potentially resulting damage.
SHERIFF’S OFFICE MISLEADS COMMUNITY ON AGREEMENTS WITH FEDERAL AGENCIES
In response to a June 2, 2020 public records request seeking “all agreements . . . between [the Sheriff’s Office] and all applicable federal agencies . . . whereby any local officers are deputized as federal agents[,]” the Sheriff’s Office, on June 9, 2020, responded that three such agreements existed. Those agreements were between the Sheriff’s Office and the U.S. Marshal, the DEA, and the ATF.
After the Sheriff’s Office responded that only three such agreements existed, multiple sources reported incidents of local officers employed by the Sheriff’s Office purporting to act as deputized officers from Homeland Security. In one instance occurring in July 2020, Officer Jami Mode with the Sheriff’s Office arrested a defendant suspected of engaging in illegal drug activities and repeatedly identified himself as a Homeland Security agent. In another example, on July 11, 2020, numerous members of the Sheriff’s Office were observed conducting an unknown operation while wearing vests that identified each officer as being from Homeland Security.
Because the Sheriff’s Office had failed to identify any agreement with Homeland Security, a second public records request was submitted to the Sheriff’s Office on July 12, 2020 noting that the Sheriff’s Office had “not provided  any agreement between the Sheriff’s Office and Homeland Security” and, based on the incidents identified above, requested that the Sheriff’s Office “provide all documents creating or memorializing any relationship between the Sheriff’s Office and Homeland Security.” The request also sought an “explanation for why members of the Sheriff’s Office were brandishing Homeland Security identifiers when acting in their official capacities as Sheriff’s officer” if no such agreement existed.
Initially, the Sheriff’s Office refused to respond, which prompted another request for the same information on July 22, 2020.
On July 23, 2020, the Sheriff’s Office revealed that it did, in fact, have an agreement with Homeland Security that had been in existence since July 4, 2016. Rather than provide an explanation as to why this agreement was withheld in response to the initial request for all such agreements, the Sheriff’s Office responded that “[a]t the present and at the time of [the] initial request, there are and were no active deputies or employees of the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office acting by or through [Homeland Security]. There may be in the future, in which case the contract would be effective, but there are none at the present time.”
Despite expressly stating that Homeland Security had not authorized any officers from the Sheriff’s Office to act as deputized Homeland Security agents from June 2, 2020 to July 23, 2020, the Sheriff’s Office refused to provide any explanation for why Officer Mode from the Sheriff’s Department expressly claimed to be acting as a Homeland Security agent or why multiple officers from the Sheriff’s Office presented themselves as Homeland Security agents by wearing vests with Homeland Security identifiers.
Although RC Catalyst has interviewed countless individuals that have been targeted (and subjected to a wide-range of abusive practices) by officers from the Sheriff’s Office claiming to be federal agents (under questionable circumstances that will be discussed in forthcoming articles), the actions of the officers involved in the examples identified above raise serious questions of possible criminal conduct in light of the Sheriff’s Office expressly stating that none of their officers were authorized to act as Homeland Security agents during the time period at issue.
As provided in 18 U.S.C.A. § 912, “[w]hoever falsely assumes or pretends to be an officer or employee acting under the authority of the Untied States or any department, agency or officer thereof . . . shall be fined . . . or imprisoned for not more than three years, or both.”
In light of the increasing concerns expressed by the citizens of this community regarding District Attorney Ted Bell’s refusal to address, in any way, issues involving criminal conduct of those at the highest levels of our local government, RC Catalyst encourages all those with first-hand knowledge or other information regarding the following issues to contact RC Catalyst at firstname.lastname@example.org on a confidential basis:
- Concerns involving possible impersonations of federal officers by employees of the Sheriff’s Office;
- Incidents of misconduct, illegal actions, and/or abuses of authority involving any officers from the Sheriff’s Office purporting to act as an agent with any federal law enforcement agency, such as:
- unlawful traffic stops resulting in subsequent unlawful vehicle searches;
- warrantless intrusions and/or searches of any house or other dwelling;
- unlawful seizures of cash or other assets – particularly in which no receipt for such items was provided, no charges were filed, and no notice was provided for the opportunity to challenge any such seizure from any federal agency under which the officers claim to be affiliated;
- planting drugs and/or other evidence to file unsupportable charges;
- threats to file baseless charges if an individual refuses to cooperate with any Sheriff’s Officers claiming to be any type of federal agent or refuses to take any criminal actions on their behalf; or
- any other unlawful, abusive, and/or harassing conduct of any officers employed by the Sheriff’s Office claiming to be acting as federal officers.
RC Catalyst also encourages anyone with such information to contact the following to report any suspected criminal conduct and/or abuses of authority:
- FBI – (704) 672-6100
- DEA – (404) 893-7000
- ATF – (704) 716-1810
- Homeland Security – (704) 679-6140
- Andrew Murray – the United States Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina – (704) 344-6222; (704) 338-3140
North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein – (919) 716-6400