Local News

State Troopers' Conduct Raises Concerns

Posted September 6, 2007 10:27 a.m. EDT
Updated September 7, 2007 12:10 a.m. EDT

— Recent allegations of state trooper misconduct is raising concerns about how the Highway Patrol manages its members.

Earlier this week, a Burlington attorney claimed that former Trooper Michael A. Steele, 28, stopped a Hispanic couple in Carrboro late last month and told the husband he would face immigration violations if he did not leave his wife behind and drive away from the stop.

Rossi alleged Steele then "made" the woman get into his patrol car "against her will," drove to a secluded area and then "forced her" to kiss him.

A second woman, also Hispanic, retained Rossi Wednesday evening, he said, after leveling similar accusations against Steele regarding an incident that apparently occurred earlier in August.

Orange County District Attorney James Woodall said the State Bureau of Investigation is looking into both allegations to determine whether criminal charges should be filed.

Steele, a trooper since April 2004, patrolled in Orange County from the Hillsborough substation. He is the third trooper in recent weeks to come under scrutiny for allegations of on-the-job misconduct.

Last week, the Highway Patrol fired Trooper Scott Harrison, 31, who is accused of profiling young women at night during traffic stops in his Wake County patrol area. Harrison, who said he will appeal the dismissal, has adamantly denied the allegations against him, saying he believe he was fair in his arrests.

Sgt. Charles L. Jones, 38, was placed on leave after internal affairs investigators at the Highway Patrol opened an investigation against him for alleged mistreatment of his police dog. The SBI is also investigating that matter.

"It certainly begs the question: 'What (is the Highway Patrol) doing to police themselves?'" said attorney Leonor Childers, who has represented Hispanic clients claiming they were illegally targeted by a Durham trooper several years ago.

Childers said she believes the recent cases of misconduct are cause for alarm and that pre-employment screening, training and supervision would helped the patrol maintain its high standards.

"These are folks that are supposed to be protecting our welfare, yet they're violating individual rights and committing crimes themselves," Childers said.

"At some point, they're going to have to start showing the public that they're serious about supervising and policing their own employees. If not, they're going to lose the trust of the public."

Highway Patrol spokesman Lt. Everett Clendenin said Thursday there are 1,820 sworn troopers who wrote more than 1 million traffic citations last year. The patrol received 165 complaints of misconduct. Eighty-seven of those resulted in disciplinary actions ranging from reprimand to termination, he said.

In 2006, there were 175 reports of misconduct; 112 resulted in discipline.

Clendenin said each recent incident is separate from the others and that patrol officials have handled each case with serious and decisive action.

In the case of Steele, for example, Clendenin said Rossi contacted the agency on Aug. 27 with general information about an allegation of serious misconduct.

Within 48 hours, officials were able to link the allegations to Steele and began an internal investigation into what they believed was one incident. Steele was interviewed and put on investigative leave, Clendenin said. He quit Sept. 2 in lieu of being fired.

"We have a high standard of conduct that we expect of our troopers," he said. "When they sway off of that, we take quick action. It's not something we're going to tolerate."