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Wednesday, 21 January 2009 15:54

Incident heightens tensions between county, sheriff

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Allegations that the Swain County Sheriff’s Department mishandled the capture of an escaped inmate earlier this month has strained the already-tense relationship between county officials and Sheriff Curtis Cochran.

Jody Smallwood, 37, escaped from a holding room in the Swain County courthouse Jan. 5. The seven-hour search for Smallwood, involving both county and Bryson City law enforcement, ended with a high-speed chase down U.S. 74.

When Smallwood made a last ditch effort to elude capture at the end of the chase, Cochran says he drew his weapon and fired two shots at the tire of the stolen van Smallwood was driving in order to disable the vehicle. Smallwood was then Tased and apprehended, according to local media reports (Cochran wouldn’t comment on the Tasing).

But a letter received by the county, signed “A Concerned Citizen,” claims the capture of Smallwood was mishandled.

“I have reason to believe that the apprehension of an escaped inmate from the Swain County Jail ... was grossly mishandled and that excessive force was used,” the anonymous letter states.

The letter writer claims that Cochran, who has not undergone basic law enforcement training and had no law enforcement experience prior to being elected in 2006, violated policies and procedures put forth by the Swain County Sheriff’s Office by using deadly force to apprehend Smallwood, even though the situation did not present an imminent threat.

The letter also accuses law enforcement officials of unnecessarily beating and Tasing Smallwood repeatedly.

County Clerk Cindi Woodard emailed the letter on Jan. 12 to the board of county commissioners and to two media outlets — the Smoky Mountain News and The Smoky Mountain Times. Though the letter is public record, making public a complaint that reflects negatively on a county department has happened rarely in Swain County.

The county defended its decision to release the letter, saying that emails received by the county’s account are public record, and that media outlets have before requested to be informed of such complaints.

“We just did proper procedure,” said County Manager Kevin King. “It came to (Commissioner Chairman) Glenn Jones, who received it via the county email account. That made it a public document at that point in time. (Media outlets) have indicated that they want to get those letters.”

Jones said he just wanted the county to play it safe, in case the complaints materialized into something bigger.

“What if something happened and you were to come by and say, if you had this letter, why didn’t’ you send it to me?” Jones said.

Jones said he felt the letter was legitimate, although King said it was signed with a false name. King said he had already “heard rumors from other individuals about some of the stuff,” contained in the letter.

Cochran, meanwhile, says the county probably had its own motives for sending out the letter — and it wasn’t to follow protocol.

“I smell politics all over this,” he said.

The sheriff and county officials are currently at odds over a lawsuit that Cochran filed against the county. In it, Cochran, a Republican, demands a pay increase to match the salary of the former sheriff, a Democrat. The sheriff’s salary was slashed when the county did away with a practice that once served as a salary supplement, just as Cochran took office. Cochran claims partisan prejudice played a factor.

But when King was asked whether the lawsuit played a part in the county’s decision to send out a letter that reflected negatively on the sheriff, his answer was, “absolutely not.”

As far as looking further into complaints alleged in the letter, county officials say it’s not their responsibility to oversee the sheriff’s department.

“He’s an elected official, and he’s supposed to take care of his own department,” said Jones.

King agreed.

“We’re not a watchdog of the sheriff — the people are,” King said. “If he’s done wrongdoing, other people would have to bring a suit against the county. We have no control over what the sheriff does.”

 

Probing the escape

The sheriff’s department has launched an investigation — but not into what happened when Smallwood was apprehended.

“The only thing we’re investigating is how he got out of the holding cell,” said Cochran. “We don’t have an investigation on nothing else.”

There is no statewide policy in place that mandates an investigation when shots are fired. Instead, it’s up to the individual law enforcement agencies.

It may be impossible to ever prove whether Smallwood’s apprehension was handled correctly. But the writer of the anonymous letter received by the county claims that the incident could have gone more smoothly if Cochran, who fired the gun, had undergone basic law enforcement training.

“Maybe this is the kind of law enforcement you have when you give an untrained man a badge and a gun,” it states.

Cochran is quick to defend his lack of experience, and says voters have put their trust in him for a reason.

“I was qualified by the people of Swain County in November of 2006 to be sheriff,” he said.

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