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City officials differ on how, what information should be released regarding viral K-9 officer video

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — City officials differ on what and how much information should be released amid an ongoing investigation into a video showing a Salisbury Police officer pulling up a K-9 by a leash, slamming the animal into a car and striking him.

The city has already received thousands of emails and calls after the video went viral and received national attention. The police officer, whose name hasn’t been confirmed, aggressively lifted a 4-year-old German shepherd Zuul off the ground by his leash, pulling the animal onto his back during a training exercise. With the animal hanging off the ground, the officer before slamming the dog on the side of a police vehicle, lifted him into the car by his collar and struck Zuul with his hand.

In the video, an off-camera voice is heard saying, “We’re good, no witnesses.” Other voices talk about turning cameras off.

The video has been reported on by national news outlets and featured in widely seen social media posts.

Communications Director Linda McElroy said the city estimates the number of calls and emails received total in the tens of thousands, with 2,000 voicemails received in one day’s time over the last week. She said the primary concerns and comments are to fire the officer involved and any officers filming the video. Others have focused on the well-being of Zuul, the status of the officer involved and whether Zuul was removed from the officer’s care.

“The other comments I dare not repeat to another human,” McElroy said.

McElroy said that, though the city cannot respond to each caller individually, it has made attempts to respond to local residents. She added the city understands callers’ concerns, but that responses have aligned with Salisbury Police Chief Jerry Stokes’ public statements delivered Tuesday. Stokes said then that the officer involved has been “administratively separated” from the dog and that the incident is being investigated by an outside agency with K-9 handling experts, including former handlers from other police departments, an owner of a K-9 training firm and SPD K-9 staff.

Zuul was brought out during Stokes’ remarks Tuesday, and is in good condition, according to city staff.

Mayor Pro Tem Al Heggins told the Post current information released by the city is appreciated, but it isn’t enough. She submitted questions to City Manager Lane Bailey that she said are central to public trust and confidence. Heggins said she called on Bailey and City Attorney Graham Corriher to release the answers in the proper format to the public.

In a one-page written statement, Heggins emphasized she was not speaking on behalf of the city or the Salisbury City Council.

“Our community and the nation watched in horror at the violence against this K9 officer in service to our residents and also heard officers engaging in very disturbing conversation that further erodes public confidence and trust,” Heggins said in the statement. “The city must provide all the information allowable under the law and not give even the slightest semblance of non-transparency.”

Additionally, Heggins said she requested a discussion with the manager and attorney of what information can be released and asked council members to consider North Carolina General Statute 160A-168 (c) (7). That statute states that the city manager and city council members may inform the public of an employee’s promotion, demotion, suspension or other disciplinary action, reinstatement, transfer or termination and the reasons for that personnel action if first “determined in writing that the release is essential to maintaining public confidence in the administration of city services or to maintaining the level and quality of city services.”

“It is critical the residents of Salisbury have confidence and trust in their police department, their police chief, their city manager and their council,” Heggins said. “As such, very serious consideration needs to be given as to the culture we will foster, support and accept in this organization. And we need to be clear about what we will not tolerate.”

Council member David Post said it’s important to ensure judicial cases and briefings related to that specific statute are examined before any move forward, especially since the statute says the council and city manager “may” inform the public of personnel information.

Among his primary questions are who released the video and why it was released months after it was allegedly filmed. Amid being included in a slew of communication between Bailey and Heggins, he wasn’t aware of the incident until the video’s release last week.

Heggins declined to answer a question about when she first saw the video. Mayor Karen Alexander said she would not answer any singular questions or comment on when she first saw the video. Other council members couldn’t be reached Saturday.

Alexander emphasized any information she releases must be vetted by the city manager or attorney first. She firmly maintained elected officials are bound by the law of what information can be released and that the due process must first play out before conclusions are reached or further comments are made.

“This is not a political football. This is serious and we must follow the law,” Alexander said. “Justice is about finding the truth, the whole truth, and then appropriately dealing with what that is.”

Alexander, noting that these processes are not quick, asked, “What’s the rush?” The laws in place, she said, protect everyone involved. Additionally, the most important thing at this time is that Zuul is healthy and well.

“We as a city are very concerned about any of our citizens and any of our animals,” Alexander said. “And our concern is the health of that animal. The animal has been removed from that situation. It is in a safe place … and it has been deemed to be healthy.”

Post said while he understands the concerns and that the actions depicted in the video are “reprehensible,” it’s good that Zuul is OK. Post said he would like to see thousands of people just as concerned with child hunger, homelessness and opioid abuse, for example.

“It’s unfortunate that all this energy is being directed at this very sad, and what appears to be very wrong, incident when we have such bigger fish to fry in this community,” Post said.

Alexander said the city is currently being as transparent as the North Carolina statutes will allow them to be.

“Unless it has gone through a North Carolina attorney, I will not be joining anyone in releasing a single thing,” she added.

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

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