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NC lets sheriffs police their own. The elected officials carry real clout when defending officers at risk of losing badges.

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Gaston County Sheriff Alan Cloninger, president of the North Carolina Education and Training Standards Division informs New Hanover County Sheriff’s Deputy Marcus Lamonte Hands, who was put on probation, that this is his one chance. The exchange was during the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Education and Training Standards Full Commission meeting June 16 in Bolivia.

This report was made possible through a grant from The Pulitzer Center to the North Carolina News Collaborative, a coalition of 23 news organizations across the state.

In 2016, John Leslie Ervin’s career in law enforcement hung in the balance.

Jacksonville Police officials had fired him after 11 years on the job. State records detailed his troubles there: complaints of lewd and aggressive comments toward women, heavy drinking the night before testifying in a federal trial, an excessive force allegation he refused to explain to superiors.

But then the Jones County sheriff offered Ervin a second chance and a job as a deputy in the tiny community in the eastern part of the state.

Ervin, then in his late thirties, faced a hurdle. He needed the blessing of a state commission dominated by elected sheriffs. They are responsible for keeping problem deputies out of their profession.

That commission’s lawyer and an administrative judge had recommended that Ervin be shown the door.

But at a meeting that September, Sheriff Danny Heath pleaded to his peers. Ervin, he said, had turned his life around.

The sheriffs gave Ervin their blessing, allowing him to wear a badge.

“Time and growth,” the sheriff commissioners later wrote in the final agency decision, had restored Ervin’s “good moral character.”

Sheriffs in North Carolina wield tremendous powers. They can hire and fire at will. Courts have even ruled that they can fire deputies based solely on political loyalty.

Less well known is that North Carolina is the only state in the country that allows sheriffs to police their own, according to the North Carolina Department of Justice website. Other states have a single commission that oversees licensure for everyone working in law enforcement.

And when sheriffs defend people in trouble who work for them, members of the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Education and Training Standards Commission frequently listen, a review of contested deputy disciplinary cases before the commission from 2016 through 2020 shows.

When a sheriff or a ranking department member vouched for a deputy trying to get or keep certification needed to wear a badge, the commission granted leniency more than three-quarters of the time, the review showed. That sometimes happens even after the commission’s lawyer and administrative law judges who held hearings on cases caution against it.

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Anson County Sheriff Landric Reid listens as Assistant Attorney General Bob Pickett presents cases during the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Education and Training Standards Full Commission meeting in June.

Sheriffs who serve on the commission bristle at the idea that the testimony of one of their peers would unduly influence certification decisions.

“The sheriff is nothing more than a character witness,” said Alan Cloninger, chairman of the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Training and Education Standards commission and elected sheriff of Gaston County.

The data shows they are witnesses who can bring influence.

A record of breaks

In 2020, commissioners let Lincoln County deputy Aaron Kennemore keep his certification after a district attorney issued a Giglio letter for him, a document warning someone is too untrustworthy to testify in criminal courts, according to an administrative law judge’s opinion. The prosecutor had concluded that Kennemore had been dishonest on reports about a drug case, administrative court records show. Though the commission’s lawyer urged commissioners to strip Kennemore’s right to work as a deputy, Lincoln County's sheriff urged them to grant a reprieve.

Kennemore declined comment for this story.

That same year, commissioners overruled recommendations, from an administrative law judge and their attorney, to deny the certification of Lamar Krider, a prospective deputy in Granville County. The administrative law judge determined Krider had harassed his ex-wife; Krider testified he was simply trying to save his marriage. Two sheriffs, representing Vance and Granville counties, vouched for him at a commission hearing.

Krider, who recently became a State Capitol Police officer, in an interview said the allegations against him were false. He also confirmed that having a sheriff defend you before the commission is helpful.

“Anytime the sheriff comes up and speaks on your behalf, that’s a big difference,” he said.

Commissioners also granted mercy in 2018 to David Howard Gibson, a former detention officer fired in Cleveland County for failing to check on an inmate in medical distress. The inmate died. Lincoln County Sheriff David Carpenter asked commissioners to disregard recommendations from their lawyer and an administrative law judge and let Gibson work in the Lincoln County jail. They agreed.

Now retired from the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, Gibson declined to comment for this report.

Cloninger, the head of the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Education and Training Standards Commission, said he and colleagues often ignore sheriffs’ pleas to keep a deputy.

“We make an officer’s decision based on the facts,” he said in an interview.

Sheriffs failed to protect deputies they went to bat for six times over five years, the review of cases showed.

On the other hand, sheriffs succeeded at protecting deputies in trouble 21 times over the same time period.

Sheriffs and their top officials also helped secure leniency for detention officers 13 out of the 14 times they vouched for the officers in those years.

When officers get in trouble

Very few North Carolina law enforcement officers are formally kicked out of the profession, a review of commission data shows.

Of the roughly 32,000 local and state officers and county deputies in North Carolina, about 500 had their certification suspended or revoked from 2016 through 2021. That’s less than 2%.

An even smaller number were blocked from entering the field or rejoining the profession after their certification lapsed. From 2016 through 2021, about 50 were denied certification.

Their fate rests in the hands of one of two state commissions. Sheriffs handle deputy and detention officer certifications. The Criminal Justice Education and Training Standards Commission deals with state prison guards, municipal police and those at state agencies.

Some decisions are out of the commissioners' hands. Committing a felony is an automatic denial or revocation, for instance.

But commissioners have wide discretion over most everything else. And members can overrule an administrative law judge’s opinion.

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Chatham County Sheriff Mike Roberson listens as Assistant Attorney General Bob Pickett presents cases during the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Education and Training Standards Full Commission meeting in June.

Police officers whose certification is in jeopardy sometimes turn to bosses for support as well. But those commanders rarely speak to the full commission on behalf of the officer, a review of Criminal Justice Education and Training Standards Commission minutes and interviews with its members show.

When chiefs do show up, they meet a very different audience than sheriffs do. The Criminal Justice Commission has twice the members as the sheriffs’ commission, and little more than half work in law enforcement. Those members include managers and lower-ranking officers.

On the sheriffs’ commission, only three civilians have a say over a deputy’s fate. The other twelve votes belong to sheriffs.

How this started

Sheriffs in North Carolina didn’t always have so much control over deputies’ careers.

In the 1970s, North Carolina joined states across the country trying to reform policing after violence brought on by racial conflicts ignited across America the previous decade. Legislators created a commission to license officers and set uniform training standards across the state.

A decade later, though, sheriffs pushed for their own commission.

Their jobs and demands were different, the sheriffs’ lobbyists argued to legislators, according to News & Observer reporting from 1983. Police chiefs tried to block the split. Police executives worried sheriffs would use their autonomy to certify political supporters unqualified to do the job, according to the reporting.

But legislators granted sheriffs their own commission. And for decades, North Carolina sheriffs have largely set their own rules and training.

Not everyone favors this system continuing.

Randy Byrd, is a former division president of the North Carolina Police Benevolent Association, an organization for rank-and-file officers. In an interview, he said the makeup of the two commissions is so different that administrative law judges, not commissioners, ought to have final say on a law enforcement officer’s certification to standardize it more.

“The certification, decertification, all this stuff, it’s just all over the map,” said Byrd, a retired Cary police officer who previously served on the commission not dominated by sheriffs. “There's just no consistency.”

At a meeting in March, Cloninger, the Gaston County sheriff leading the sheriffs’ commission this year, speculated advocates and progressive legislators pushing for criminal justice reform may seek to merge the two commissions into one.

Over the last four decades, legislators have never tried to eliminate the sheriffs’ commission.

Cloninger was adamant that the sheriff’s autonomy remain. He said in an interview that sheriffs are elected and their employees juggle many responsibilities, from securing courts to transporting mentally ill patients.

“We are not the same,” he told fellow commissioners. “We are different.”

 How John Ervin kept his badge

When John Ervin’s career in law enforcement was on the line, Jones County Sheriff Heath did not mince words.

Heath stood before eight of his peers in Sept. 2016 at the offices of the Guilford County Sheriff’s office in McLeansville. Heath assured them he had the ability to “size up a person quickly.” Ervin, whom he had hired three years previously, was one of his most important employees, according to minutes of the meeting.

A judge, who reviews possible violations of state administrative code, had come to a different opinion about Ervin after a hearing five months earlier. Ervin had sought her review after a subcommittee of commissioners found enough probable cause to merit denying his certification with Jones County Sheriff’s Office.

For hours, Judge Melissa Owens Lassiter heard a lawyer for the commission tick through evidence that Ervin lacks the “good moral character” required of a deputy.

Ervin had been summoned to testify in a federal drug case, she said. As he prepped with a prosecutor the night before, he drank beer. The prosecutor urged him to stop; he told her “he was just getting started.” As the night wore on, Ervin waved money, wagering to other hotel patrons he could get the female clerk to sleep with him. He also told the other guests that his female colleague would not come to his hotel room because he “would rape her.”

Ervin, who represented himself at the hearing, told Judge Lassiter that his behaviors toward women and his drinking patterns were “common” and “accepted at law enforcement conferences,” according to the judge’s opinion.

Ervin’s troubles continued. At the trial, a juror was so alarmed by a video showing Ervin kicking the defendant during the arrest that the juror filed a complaint of excessive force with Jacksonville Police. Ervin refused to cooperate in the internal investigation that prompted, according to the judge’s opinion.

The judge found that Ervin, who declined to comment for this report, “showed no genuine remorse” during his testimony.

But Sheriff Heath told fellow sheriffs that Ervin was a changed man.

Commissioners agreed to let Ervin continue his law enforcement career. But they required a safeguard. Ervin would serve five years probation, during which time he was ordered to follow the law and commission rules. Ervin and the sheriff had the responsibility to alert the commission to any violations.

Heath died in 2021.

And Ervin is now a captain overseeing the Jones County Sheriff’s office investigative unit.

Without digging into the sheriffs’ commissioner records, Jones County residents would have little ability to know of his past troubles.

In a massive criminal justice reform bill passed last year, legislators required public disclosure only of officers who lost certification.

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