03/19/08 — Officers get mixed reviews in Fremont

View Archive

Officers get mixed reviews in Fremont

By Nick Hiltunen
Published in News on March 19, 2008 1:45 PM

FREMONT -- For the second month in a row, citizens gathered at town hall to complain to their aldermen about what they see as an overzealous police department.

But the late-arriving crowd of about seven was smaller and less vocal than the previous one, and this time a local businessman stood up to defend police Chief Ronald Rawlings.

Also, each of the town aldermen shook the police chief's hand, some more enthusiastically than others, in a show of support for Rawlings' work.

The handshaking came about at the suggestion of town Alderman Leroy Ruffin, who ceremoniously called Rawlings up to him to address him at the end of public comments.

"We want to say thank you for a job well done," Ruffin said before shaking the police chief's hand.

But some residents are still concerned about how police officers are treating them.

Resident Michelle May, who also spoke negatively about the police at the last town meeting, said her son had been harassed by a Fremont police officer.

Specifically, she said he was stopped at around 9 p.m. one evening while walking to a convenience store in town.

"They (officers) didn't turn on the blue lights, because they knew that would start the video camera," Ms. May said. "They went all in his pockets without his permission."

Rawlings said that stop was probably a "field interview," when officers can stop someone whom they believe is acting suspiciously and can pat the suspect down for weapons.

"The policy (of field interviews) is set in place because of the prevalent drug dealing that's going on all over the country," Rawlings said. "You can say, 'Why are you here at 2 a.m. The stores are closed, and you're standing here.'"

Rawlings said his officers conducting field interviews recently discovered a man with a gun and a mask.

But Ms. May said her son was doing nothing illegal and was walking to the store around 9 p.m., not in wee hours of the morning.

Ms. May said police officers asked her son "what's your mama's name, and what's your grandmother's name," and were otherwise verbally abusive.

Ms. May said she called Town Administrator Kerry McDuffie to explain the situation.

"He (McDuffie) had the nerve to call me a liar. He said I was a liar, and 'How can I believe anything else you say, because you are a liar.'"

McDuffie did not respond verbally to the comments in open session.

Ms. May said Fremont police have become known for their policing.

"People don't want to come through here, because they got the crazy police officers who are going to stop you," Ms. May said. "It's ridiculous how things are being (run) here ... People that's been here all their lives, we don't matter. They want to abuse their authority."

But not everyone agreed with Ms. May's assessment.

Isaac Artis of South Aycock Street, who owns Artis Trucking and Landscaping, spoke in support of the chief.

"I know you can't make everybody happy. A lot of times when you start doing good, you're rubbing somebody the wrong way," Artis said.

Artis said a petition circulated to remove the chief might have come about as a result of police action during a Norwayne Alumni parade.

"When someone wanted to cross through the parade, you pull that person over and did what you were supposed to have done, you rubbed somebody the wrong way. Some of the community members ran out and got a petition, trying to remove you from office.

"Within the last eight months, crime has come into our area. They have been breaking into cars, all over on the east side over here," Artis said.

Rawlings nodded as Artis, who said he has attended local crime watch meetings, described the criminal activity in the eastern part of Fremont.

"Taking pennies out of the ash tray, shattering people's windows," Artis said of the increasing vehicle break-ins. "You can be good for a while, and you think you're safe. But when it (crime) knocks at your door, then you'll have a different opinion."

The Fremont resident asked the chief, a former first sergeant with the N.C. Highway Patrol, to continue with more aggressive law enforcement policies.

"Please don't let up because most of the time the wheel that is going to make the most noise is dry of grease," Artis said.

Ms. May stood after Artis spoke and said "the citizens don't have a problem with them doing their job. We have a problem with them harassing and overdoing their job.

"There's a difference between doing your job and then going over the limits. I'm not a dry wheel, or whatever you want to call it, whatever he said."

In other business, a probationary officer officially became part of Rawlings' police force.

Rawlings recommended that Officer Jesse Santifort be taken off his probationary period as an officer, and aldermen approved the action.