Text message exchange shows council’s discussion of K-9 incident when video leaked

Published 12:10 am Thursday, April 1, 2021

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — A text message exchange among city council members and the city manager in early March shows Mayor Karen Alexander and Mayor Pro Tem Al Heggins knew about a video depicting the mistreatment of K-9 Officer Zuul before it was leaked.

Both declined to comment on when they first saw the video and why no action was taken immediately after the incident, citing legal instruction to not disclose such information during an ongoing personnel matter.

The video attracted national attention and sparked protests from the advocacy organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Locally, it spurred calls for the officer’s resignation. The video shows a Salisbury Police Department K-9 handler lifting a 4-year-old German shepherd named Zuul off the ground by his collar and pulling the animal onto his back during a training exercise. With the animal hanging off the ground, the officer slammed the dog on the side of a police vehicle, lifted him into the car by his collar and struck him with his hand.

SPD announced the conclusion of the investigation on Wednesday, with Officer James “Buddy” Hampton identified as the officer depicted in the video. The department recommended Hampton’s termination for “engaging in inappropriate discipline” with Zuul, but Hampton resigned before the conclusion of his due process hearing.

After the video leaked in early March, the Post requested all copies of Zuul’s veterinarian assessments as well as the names, salaries and status of all Salisbury Police K-9 handlers. Four veterinarian assessments were provided — three with June 2020 dates from Lazy 5 Vets and one from the Concord Parkway Animal Hospital from March 4, which appears to be the only one conducted since the October incident.

The Post requested on March 3 a copy of text messages sent to City Manager Lane Bailey from Heggins. The city has not yet fulfilled that request.

On March 25, the Post anonymously received a typed copy of a text message exchange among city council members and Bailey on March 1, 2 and 3. The messages were dropped through the Post’s mail slot on the front door. The Post then reached out to all council members and the city manager to confirm the accuracy of the exchange.

Bailey confirmed he sent a message to council members on March 1 at 9:11 p.m. stating the city received an inquiry from Charlotte TV station Fox 46 about the K-9 officer video “that was shared with you a while back.”

“We are aware that the video was posted on their site. It has since been taken down,” Bailey said in the text message. “This is still an ongoing personnel matter and we are limited in what we can say. We will provide a statement to the press tomorrow in response to their inquiry. I just wanted you to be aware in case you got any calls or questions.”

Bailey confirmed to the Post on March 27 the exchange depicted in the document did “accurately reflect the content of the texts exchanged with council.” He declined to comment further due the ongoing personnel matter.

Heggins responded to Bailey in the message exchange with, “I know that (Alexander) and I have saw the video; have all the council members seen the video?” Bailey responded it was an ongoing personnel matter and that such info could not be shared. Following questions prompted by Heggins, subsequent messages from Bailey state he did not know who posted the video to Fox 46 and why it was taken down.

“Only staff members had the video,” Heggins said in the text message exchange. “And it was my understanding that an officer captured the video. What is the status of the K9? And was it taken to the vet after that event?”

Bailey responded the K-9 was under the care of another officer and in good health. Heggins pressed Bailey again on the question of whether the dog was taken to the vet. He responded March 2 around 5:30 p.m. that Zuul had not been because “there were no symptoms of distress or injury and he was in good health.”

“How and who made the determination ‘there were no symptoms of distress or injury and he was in good health,'” Heggins asked. “The first question is actual and please let us know.”

She continued, “This question is for thought: Who on this text would not seek medical attention for their dog after seeing it hung by its full body weight, with its neck in a choke chain, feet dangling, over the back of a full grown man? This question is for thought: Which of us, as living beings, would be distressed, injured and in good health after being hung with a choke chain around our necks, by full body weight, feet dangling, over the back of a full grown man?”

Heggins confirmed to the Post on March 27 the validity of the text message exchange, but she declined to state when she first saw the video, citing the city attorney’s instruction to council members not to share information related to the ongoing personnel issue. She added she was informed once council members were told the incident is a personnel matter “that’s when the law kicks in about what can and cannot be shared.”

Heggins said when she and Alexander first saw the video, council members were informed of it but not shown the video.

Heggins has been vocal about her desire for the city to provide the public with more information, citing in a March 16 city council meeting North Carolina General Statute 160A-168 (c) (7), which 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.” Heggins also asked for weekly updates on the status of the investigation.

City attorney Graham Corriher told council members March 16 the extent of what information could be released would be discussed in a subsequent closed session meeting.

“There’s nothing I want more than to share information with the public,” Heggins told the Post.

Alexander told the Post council members had been advised by an outside human resources attorney to direct its actions “to protect the city from a lawsuit from the accused.”

“As I’ve said from the very, very beginning, I’m going to go by the law,” Alexander told the Post.

Corriher confirmed Wednesday Stephanie Webster of Cranfill Sumner, LLP, was hired to provide counsel.

Council member Tamara Sheffield stated in the text message exchange she wasn’t aware of what was being discussed.

“Without getting into a conversation over text… Al, I do not know what you are talking about. So you have seen something the rest of us have not,” Sheffield said on March 2. You have a very valid question that I believe the council deserves answers.”

Sheffield confirmed to the Post on March 27 she recalled sending the message, adding that she hadn’t seen the video then and still hasn’t. However, she is aware of its content.

“All of us have been very adamant in saying to our city manager that this needs to be investigated and resolved,” Sheffield told the Post. “I by no means support hiding information from the public. I by no means support any animal cruelty. But I have to believe the process will play out and hold people accountable.”

Around 9 p.m. on March 2, council member David Post said via text he was also unaware of what was going on.

“This cross examination implies that there is some disagreement between the (Mayor Pro Tem) and the City Manger and/or Police Chief and suggests that outside information is coming from some source,” Post said. “Will city council ever be briefed on this?”

Heggins sent messages on March 3 notifying the council and city manager the video had been shared on social media and covered by national news outlets.

Council member Post told the Post he has yet to receive an answer about who leaked the video and who had access to it. Post added that a Facebook post was his first time seeing the video. Bailey told the Post the council has received updates and periodic emails, but Post said the closed session following the March 16 meeting was the “first and only time he’s familiar that council had any discussion of this.”

Post said the timeline and flow of information to council about the video should be disclosed to the public.

Council member Brian Miller was not involved in the text message exchange received. He declined to comment further.

Corriher told the Post Wednesday information regarding when council members were made aware of the video is still protected by the state’s municipal personnel privacy statue, outlined in NCGS 160A-168 (a).

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.