East Spencer Mayor: ‘There is a problem’ Questions swirl in police department probe

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 24, 2013

SALISBURY — East Spencer Mayor Barbara Mallett said the town’s police department has “a problem,” after several officers voiced complaints to town administrators.
Current and former officers at the department say Chief Darren Westmoreland is the source of those problems, and they say he’s being investigated by the town.
Town officials acknowledged that they’re investigating the department but won’t say whether Westmoreland is at the center of the probe.
“I know there is a problem. We are addressing it. I’m hoping there’ll be some closure to it pretty soon,” Mallett told the Post during a phone interview.
But one town council member, who asked not to be named, said Town Administrator Macon Sammons Jr. has already conducted an internal investigation and no actions were taken.
Mallett repeatedly called the issue a “personnel matter,” declining to disclose any additional details regarding the nature of the complaints.
During a series of interviews, the current and former officers, who spoke to the Post on condition of anonymity, accused the chief of everything from a negligent homicide investigation to falsifying time sheets.
The internal investigation, Mallett said, was prompted after several officers confronted her about “concerns” within the department.
Mallett said she met with officers once at the East Spencer town hall and again at a “local restaurant.” She said she did not recall the name of the restaurant, the number of officers who attended or when the meetings took place.
Officers said Mallett met with officers at restaurants in Concord and Kannapolis.
Neither Westmoreland nor Sammons returned phone calls or emails seeking comment Tuesday.
On Nov. 13, 2011, 20-year-old Travis Hinds was gunned down at a house party on Cedar Street and died. Initial reports said more than 75 people were inside the home when Hinds was shot in the head.
No one has been arrested in the shooting.
But former officers told the Post little investigative work was done into the homicide.
According to a Rowan County Sheriff’s Office incident report obtained by the Post, Westmoreland — who was East Spencer’s Acting Police Chief at the time — dismissed other law enforcement agencies who were called in for assistance.
“On November 13, 2011, the East Spencer Police Department responded to a disturbance call at 903 Cedar Street. Officer R. Cuthbertson arrived on the scene and discovered the body of Travis Hinds in the floor of the living room. Numerous subjects were on the scene and left the area as additional officers arrived,” Detective T.L. Misenheimer wrote in the 2011 report.
The Sheriff’s Office asked East Spencer to contact the State Bureau of Investigation, the report said, and began securing the crime scene.
“During the course of this process, Acting East Spencer Chief Westmoreland stated he did not want our assistance with anything other than the crime scene investigation and storage of the evidence collected,” Misenheimer wrote. “SBI Agent (Steven) Holmes and I spoke to Westmoreland several times and confirmed this was his decision. I assisted with the crime scene investigation and released all the Sheriff’s personnel at 0850 (hours) and left the scene in the care of Chief Westmoreland.”
Sheriff’s Office Capt. John Sifford confirmed the validity of the report Tuesday. Sifford said police chiefs have the authority to decide how much assistance they need in investigations.
“A chief of a law enforcement agency would be able to request the level of assistance that he felt was necessary in an incident that occurred within his jurisdiction,” Sifford said in an email.
Current and former cops said no member of the East Spencer Police Department had training to investigate a homicide.
Officers also accused Westmoreland of failing to fully investigate after a 2-year-old was shot in a home on East Torbush Street in December.
According to police narratives obtained by the Post, officers were called to the home on Dec. 22, 2012, and later found the injured child at Novant Health Rowan Medical Center about 3:50 p.m. He had been shot in the buttocks.
Doctors told officers the child had been shot once with a .22-caliber or .380-caliber handgun.
The report penned by Officer B. Michael said he and Westmoreland found what appeared to be pot and a bullet on the couch, according to the police report.
The victim’s mother later told officers the boy had been shot accidentally and a bloody shell casing was thrown away in a nearby wooded area before police arrived.
Officers said the case was never fully investigated. No charges were filed in the case, according to the Rowan County Clerk of Courts office.
At the hospital, a 19-year-old told officers he and another man were smoking pot with the child in the room when the gun went off.
After visiting the child in the hospital, Officer Michael said he searched the scene with Westmoreland.
“Chief Westmoreland arrived on the scene and assisted with the investigation. When Chief Westmoreland and I entered the said address, we immediately smelled the odor of marijuana in the kitchen area of the house. Chief Westmoreland and I noticed a bag with leafy substance inside laying open in plain view,” Michael wrote.
“When the bag was picked up, we noticed a set of digital scales underneath the bag. Officer Thomas returned to the scene to assist in a plain view search of the residence. Officer Thomas found a bag on top of the refrigerator containing a green leafy substance inside,” the report said. “Chief Westmoreland noticed a .380-caliber bullet lying underneath the couch in the back room where the victim had been shot. He also noticed blood on the couch and on the floor of the residence.”
Still, two months later, officers continued to submit supplemental reports for the case.
On Feb. 18, 2012, the mother of the child told authorities her brother was “cleaning or playing with a gun” when the toddler walked into the room.
When the man attempted to put the firearm away, it went off.
The mother told police her brother and his girlfriend “cleaned up the house and threw the bullet casing in the woods because it contained blood on it.”
As of February 18, the reports stated, the case remained open.
East Spencer Alderman John Noble, a former longtime Rowan County deputy, said the investigation is ongoing and that the board had not come to a conclusion on the issue at the department.
“It’s not necessarily the chief,” Noble said when asked if Westmoreland was the target of the investigation. “It’s the department. They have issues within the department. We’re trying to get to them and resolve the problem.”
Sammons tapped Westmoreland for the head position in February 2012, making Westmoreland the sixth chief in five years at the department.
Local NAACP President Scott Teamer said he has also heard allegations against the department and said an independent committee is conducting an investigation. Officers told the Post some employees were subject to discrimination.
“At this point, we do have an official complaint from some police officers at East Spencer,” Teamer said. “It’s under review. Our Legal Redress Committee is looking into these allegations at this time. We’re reviewing the allegations right now.”
Along with allegedly botched investigations, the officers accused Westmoreland of falsifying his time sheets.
Westmoreland’s time sheets, obtained by the Post and signed by the chief and Sammons in 2012, show additional hours that do not match with the 911 Center’s CAD system, which tracks when officers come on and off duty.
Westmoreland added an additional 12 hours in February 2012, 11 hours in March, two hours in September and six hours in October that did not correspond with the on-duty reports, according to the time sheets. On Feb. 20, he tacked on 10 hours for the day.
But Rowan County Communications Director Rob Robinson said most officers reports don’t completely match up with the CAD system because officers may not notify the 911 center if they’re doing paperwork at the office.
“That doesn’t mean they’re not on-duty,” Robinson said.
Still, a staff member at the 911 center told the Post a town council member has requested the on-duty reports for Westmoreland.
Noble and Mallett said they were unaware of allegations that Westmoreland falsified time sheets.