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Crime & Justice

Mecklenburg commissioners back sheriff amid firings, alleged violations at county jail

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So far, 2021 has been a chaotic year at the Mecklenburg County jail. It's been marked by two COVID-19 outbreaks, the back-to-back deaths of two people who were incarcerated at the jail and the firing of six employees charged with criminal offenses.

Despite this, Mecklenburg County commissioners say they remain supportive of Sheriff Garry McFadden and say his actions show his dedication to transparency and holding employees accountable when they fail to meet expectations.

"I believe the sheriff's actions demonstrate that he will not tolerate criminal behavior from those within his agency," Commission Chair George Dunlap wrote in a statement to WFAE. "The sheriff holds his staff accountable, which is a good thing."

McFadden is an elected official who is not supervised by commissioners but whose office relies on county funding.

Commissioners Susan Rodriguez McDowell, Mark Jerrell and Pat Cotham also expressed support for the sheriff in interviews and statements to WFAE.

Jerrell and Cotham said they were troubled by the deaths of two people who were incarcerated at the county jail in May.

One of them, 20-year-old Karon Golightly, was found unresponsive in his cell the morning of May 14 and later died at a hospital. Months later, the sheriff's office has not publicly stated a cause of death.

The other, 41-year-old John Devin Haley, was found dead in his cell on May 22. The sheriff's office said a preliminary investigation determined the cause of death was suicide.

A report in The Charlotte Observer found detention officers allegedly were not conducting required 40-minute checks on the two inmates before their deaths, in violation of state regulations.

The sheriff's office has not commented on the report, but Cotham and Jerrell said they had faith McFadden would correct problems if there were any.

"I know the sheriff well enough that he will address it and it won't happen again," Cotham said.

In addition, Jerrell praised McFadden for firing six employees who were charged with a range of criminal offenses this year.

Four of them were accused of misconduct on the job, including a detention officer accused of sexually assaulting a transgender inmate, an officer charged with having sex with an inmate, and two officers accused of physically assaulting inmates.

Jerrell said in each case, commissioners were promptly notified of the incidents and the sheriff's decision to terminate the employees.

"The sheriff has been extremely transparent," Jerrell said. "Anytime that there's an incident, anytime that there's been something that they have been dealing with respect to the jail, we have always received communication from the sheriff."

Kristie Puckett Williams with the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina said she believed bad behavior among detention officers had long been common inside detention facilities, and she believed McFadden had only been more public about it.

"It's more an indictment of the entire system than of the jail and the sheriff," she said. "I think he's doing the best he can given a system that is broken and illegitimate."

Puckett Williams, who herself was held inside the Mecklenburg County jail on protest-related charges in 2020, said she also sympathized with the sheriff having a tough job keeping incarcerated people safe during a global pandemic. However, she said staff needed to do more.

"They have to step it up and make sure those 40-minute checks are happening, especially on the people who we've already identified as high risk for suicide," she said.

The sheriff's office declined a request for an interview with WFAE, but in a statement, McFadden said his office had been "transparent and forthcoming by self-reporting the criminal misconduct and terminations of these employees" and had "taken quick and decisive action and done so very publicly."

"Sheriff McFadden doesn't take this lightly, and it's disappointing and hurtful when an employee fails to meet expectations," the statement said. "Sheriff McFadden does take responsibility and action to demonstrate that he will not tolerate criminal misconduct from those within his agency who have taken an oath to uphold the law."

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