About a hundred people marched and rallied at the Beaufort County Courthouse Saturday (7-28-12) seeking what they describe as "justice" in Beaufort County. The rally, organized by the Beaufort County chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was in response to the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office putting a man, Keith Small, whom they arrested on June 6, in the hospital since. You can read our earlier report of that story by clicking here.
Saturday's march began near the site of the arrest and proceeded to the County Courthouse, where several speakers addressed the crowd. You can hear the speeches in the video clips below. The rally organizers also solicited signatures on a petition calling for the District Attorney, Seth Edwards, to investigate the tactics used by the Sheriff's Department. The speakers indicate that if they are not successful in getting a local investigation they will proceed to the state and Federal levels to obtain an "outside investigation." One speaker mentioned a boycott of local businesses if that is deemed necessary.
Several speakers and marchers with whom we talked distinguished between Small's guilt or innocence of what he is charged with and what they perceive as unreasonable force used to arrest him. "I don't support whether he is guilty of what they have accused him of. That is for the courts to decide. But I believe it is not necessary to use so much force you put a man in the hospital for weeks unless he presents a threat to the officers.," one marcher told us.
The first video clip shows the beginning of the march as the participants organized and then began their trek to the Courthouse.
The second clip shows the group arriving at the Courthouse and the first set of speakers:
The third clip continues with the speeches, although not all are presented here.
This is a sticky issue. It's sticky because its easy to confuse the issue the marchers were talking about and the fact that the man may indeed be guility of a bad crime. Most of us, including many of the marchers, support our law enforcement people. But at the same time we, like many of these marchers, question why so much force was used to arrest Keith Small. We were told by several eye-witnesses that several deputies continued to beat him even after he was handcuffed and on the ground. Deputies contend they were "applying life saving techniques".
We might be more inclined to accept this explanation if this were the first time such an event had happened. It is not. We have reported extensively on other incidents that raise similar questions, including the Siege on 12th Street in June of 2011, the cover-up of Sheriff Alan Jordan being stopped by Washington Police officers and the abuse of a local citizen's Second Amendment rights. In addition, we have received complaints from other citizens who would not let us print their names so we have not reported those incidents. One incident involved two deputies roughing up a voter who was a supporter of a political opponent of the Sheriff in the last election. Another also related to the use of unreasonable force in response to a domestic disturbance.
What is, in our opinion worse than any one of these single incidents is the fact that the Sheriff's Office has consistently refused to disclose records of complaints we know citizens have filed against officers. And we have on several occasions asked District Attorney Seth Edwards if he has ever investigated any of these complaints. His answers: "No."
That is what we find most disturbing in all this, including the arrest of Keith Small. We agree with the SCLC speaker who called for an impartial, outside investigation.
We would go one step further. We think the Beaufort County Commissioners and the Washington City Council should appoint a civilian review board for each department. A policy should be adopted that the board review all arrest records that involve injury to either a suspect or an officer. We think they should investigate any use of a weapon or Taser. Such a review panel should also serve as an appeal board for complaints filed against an officer if the complainant is not satisfied with the administrative handling of the complaint.
And then all of these records should be published on the department's website for anyone to review, even if where appropriate the names of innocent parties have been redacted.
To our knowledge, the Beaufort County Sheriff's Department repeatedly has violated the Public Records laws of North Carolina. That they refuse to operate transparently is a real indictment of not only the Sheriff's judgment but it portends suspicion when something like the Keith Small incident happens. The arrogance that they think they can operate outside the law is unacceptable.
Given the history of the last few years, we agree with the marchers who are calling for a Justice Department investigation of the Beaufort County Sheriff's Department. Such an investigation is needed simply because there has been too much smoke for there not to be fire behind the scenes. The Sheriff's refusal to release public records speaks for itself. That necessitates an investigation by those who have the authority, unlike the press, to subpoena records and compel witnesses to testify under oath.
Moreover, we believe the most significant thing that could be done, not only about dealing with excessive force, but with corruption in general, would be to establish investigative grand juries in the state. We think such panels should be appointed on an ad hoc basis to investigate issues dealing with governmental officials' actions upon the determination of the County Commission/ City Council, District Attorney, resident Superior Court judge or the State Attorney General. The importance of this is that the panel would have the authority to subpoena records and compel witnesses to testify. It is obvious to us that at this point North Carolina needs such grand juries.
The honest cops deserve to have the bad apples weeded out of their midst.
Again, we take no stand on whether Keith Small is innocent or guilty of the charges levied against him. But we do take a stand that he has a right to a fair trial based on the evidence presented. His guilt, behavior or character is not the issue here. The issue is whether the public knows how the people to whom we entrust immense power have used that power. And the issue is transparency. Transparency is essential to have confidence in our law enforcement and judicial officials and transparency is essential in preventing future incidents like the 12th Street debacle and perhaps the Keith Small incident.