ATR completes its probe of deputies incident
By Beth Alston
AMERICUS — The Americus Times-Recorder conducted its own investigation of an incident involving three sheriff’s deputies and their supervisor on Nov. 29 at Southland Academy. The investigation started after the newspaper received a letter, via email, from Sumter County Sheriff Pete Smith, on Dec. 1. The letter was relative to an incident that had occurred during the “early morning hours of Wednesday, Nov. 29, in the gymnasium at Southland Academy on Southland Road.
The sheriff’s letter reads:
“The Sumter County Sheriff’s Office received a complaint about a possible criminal trespass at a location in the county. “Upon investigating we found that three on duty deputies made entry into a location without the consent of the owner. All deputies involved along with their supervisor were immediately placed on suspension pending further review of the complaint. “The victim did not want to press charges and I consulted with the District Attorney’s office about the incident to advise their office of the situation and that the victim didn’t want to press charges.
“The District Attorney’s office advised they would not pursue charges and would allow me to handle the situation internally.
“All involved as well as their supervisor was disciplined according to our policy and this behavior is totally unacceptable and will not be tolerated.
“I apologize to the citizens of Sumter County and want to insure the safety of them and their property.”
The Times-Recorder emailed a request on Friday for all records relative to this incident. The sheriff released the information and the newspaper met with Chief Deputy, Col. Eric Bryant, about the matter.
According to information from Bryant, the three deputies — Cpl. Scott Daniel and Deputies Joshua McClung and Jordan Ball — “jimmied the lock” on the door of the school and entered, shooting baskets and partaking of the concessions in the gym for a period of about 2.5 hours. The Southland Academy Headmaster, Ty Kinslow, viewed security camera footage the morning of Nov. 29 and recognized the people in the gym as sheriff’s deputies. Kinslow contacted the sheriff and advised the sheriff of the incident. The sheriff’s chief investigator, Maj. Ralph Stuart was sent to review the footage and investigate the incident.
In documents obtained by the Times-Recorder through an Open Meetings and Records request, an “overview” of the incident identified the three deputies, as well as their supervisor, Sgt. Jim Bass.
That document reveals that on the night of the incident there were only four sheriff’s personnel on duty: the three deputies and their supervisor, Sgt. Jim Bass.
Stuart contacted Southwestern Judicial Circuit District Attorney, Plez Hardin and briefed him on the incident.
“After a review of the details he advised the DA’s office would not pursue charges and just let the Sheriff’s office handle it internally,” the report reads.
During a meeting with the shift, the deputies were told their superiors had the incident on video, “and they needed to be truthful about what had happened.”
The document reveals that Cpl. Scott Daniel admitted to being on the school property with the other two deputies, McClung and Ball. “Cpl. Daniel first stated that the door was unsecure but then recanted and said that they gained entry by picking the lock.”
“McClung admitted to going to the concession stand and getting snacks for everyone. Ball & Daniel said they did go onto the school property.”
Col. Bryant questioned the deputies’ supervisor, Sgt. Bass, about the incident and asked Bass if he was aware of where his shift was that night. Bass said no.
“ … I believe they all answered truthfully,” Bryant says in the document. “I explained how embarrassing it if for the organization and their actions were considered criminal.”
The overview says all four were suspended pending the outcome of the investigation. Following a meeting of the sheriff’s command staff, it was determined that all four be suspended without pay for five days, placed on six months of probation and required to undergo a minimum of 40 hours training of supervision/ethics. “Also, to include standards in the probationary period to insure they meet the recommendations set forth. If all standards are not met during that probationary period, we recommend termination.”
According to Maj. Stuart’s report, he was contacted the morning of Nov. 29 by the sheriff and told to make contact with the Southland headmaster. During his meeting with Ty Kinslow, Stuart was told that the school’s surveillance cameras has captured video of three males entering the school through a secured door of the biology lab and that the subjects appeared to be law enforcement officers. Upon reviewing the video, Stuart recognized the sheriff’s deputies.
The Times-Recorder asked Col. Bryant of this sort of behavior (forcible entry) was a violation of the deputies’ oath of office. Bryant said it was not a violation of their oath office for three reasons: Anytime you have a crime committed, you have a victim and in this case the victim (Southland’s Kinslow) decided he didn’t want to pursue criminal charges.
“And, we actually conferred with our district attorney who stated that if we didn’t have a victim we didn’t have a crime so therefore he didn’t see a need to pursue criminal charges. And thirdly, there was no intent to take, damage or destroy any property … so therefore that’s why we thought there wasn’t enough to criminally charge them with violation of the oath of office,” Bryant said.
Bryant said damage control “relates to the credibility of the officers and the rest of the department … and public safety throughout. We have an obligation to the people. We’re very sorry about this incident and our victim in this case realizes there was never any intent. There have been cases where they have found the doors unsecured out there (at Southland Academy). They walk through the building and make sure there was nothing wrong … at the end of the walk-through they would secure the building and leave the premises. But for them to actually help themselves in that fashion it was nothing that is pleasant in our eyes.”
Bryant also acknowledged the public’s scrutiny of the incident.
“We have been polled as to why they haven’t been terminated and that was because the victim knew that there wasn’t wrongful intent of those individuals. It was just a bad choice at that time,” he said.
There are only four deputies on duty for the entire county at night. Those three — Daniel, McClung and Ball — were shooting hoops and eating snacks, while the fourth their supervisor, Sgt. Jim Bass. was out patrolling “like he was supposed to be but he is also supposed to be accountable for the other three,” according to Bryant.
The colonel explained that if he had not heard from the other three on-duty deputies, Bass should have checked on them, and that’s why he was disciplined as well.
“After 30 minutes that supervisor should have been asking where they were. Why aren’t you checking this or checking that?” Bryant said.” Of course we still live in a community where thankfully at 12 or 1 o’clock in the morning everything’s quiet … there’s not a lot going on even with traffic on a Tuesday night or Wednesday morning. But still, that’s not their OK to go do that. We got a black eye and unfortunately we’ll probably wear this one for a while.”
When asked if the deputies were ready to respond in case of trouble that night, he said they all had their radios on the entire time. There were no calls for service during that time they were there, and the sergeant, Bass, was “familiar with their location.”
The Times-Recorder, also through an Open Meetings and Records request, also obtained a copy of the Code of Conduct for employees of the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office.
The document reads, in part, under the Dereliction of Duty section:
a. “Employees, while on duty. shall at all times remain alert and in a state of readiness to quickly respond to any situation requiring official action. Employees, while on duty, shall not sleep or engage in any other activities, which could cause them to neglect their duties.
b. “Employees shall not leave their work assignments except when authorized by their supervisor.”
District Attorney Hardin was contacted about this incident and echoed Bryant, saying that being that no one wished to pursue charges, he would not be pursuing the incident. Southland Headmaster Ty Kinslow did not respond to a request from this newspaper for comment about why he didn’t wish for charges to be pursued. The sheriff’s wife is an employee of Southland Academy.
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