Raleigh police chief answers questions on search: 'Officer was absolutely professional'
Posted November 6, 2019 3:24 p.m. EST
Updated November 7, 2019 6:48 p.m. EST
Raleigh, N.C. — Raleigh Chief of Police Cassandra Deck-Brown on Wednesday defended the police officer shown in body- and dash-cam video searching a DWI suspect. Local defense attorney Karen Griffin called the officer's actions sexual assault, noting that the officer patted down her female client's breasts, buttocks and put his hand between her legs.
"That officer was absolutely professional in everything that he did," Deck-Brown said. "He conducted a valid search incident to the arrest of a DWI suspect. The comments from the local attorney ... I think that they were egregious, and I think that they were erroneous, and I think that they were unprofessional.
"He didn't deserve that allegation, and I needed to speak out on his behalf."
Officer K.E. Van Althius remains on full duty in the Field Operations Division.
On Sept. 25, he was among a group of officers who surrounded the female driver as she stopped for gas on St. Mary's Street.
On body-camera video, the driver is visible, in handcuffs, as Althius searches her.
Griffin received the video from the district attorney's office as part of the evidence in the case.
"I've never seen a search that invasive," she said.
"The officer touched my client in every way that a normal person, especially a woman, would not want to be touched by a man. He touched her breasts and shook them. He touched everywhere else around her private parts."
On the video, the officer inspects the woman's shorts, touching her, then asks her to turn.
"He made her turn to face the car, asked her to spread her legs apart, then asked her to spread them further and ran his hand in between her legs," Griffin said.
Pete Rubino, who was a police officer for 30 years and is now the vice president of the Carolina Safety Resource Group, which consults with law enforcement agencies, agreed with Griffin's evaluation.
"I've never seen an extensive search like that for a DWI," he said. "If that officer really thinks it's reasonable to do that, that officer may need to look at procedures again."
Deck-Brown expressed her concerns about the allegations made and language used by Griffin in describing the video.
"For an officer of the court to make a comment as such, it undermines a lot of things. It undermines the security that has to happen when an officer conducts a proper search," she said.
The use of the term "sexual assault" to describe the actions of the officer in the search, Deck-Brown said, depreciates the impact and life-long effects of sexual crimes on victims.
"This is not an easy job," Deck-Brown said. "We don't take this job lightly. We can't take searches lightly."
The driver was found to have a blood alcohol content of 0.15, almost twice the level at which a driver is considered impaired under North Carolina law.
On Wednesday, Sr. Officer Alice Malzahan demonstrated how she trains police recruits to execute a thorough search.
"If we fail to search a suspect properly and they have a weapon on them, they could use it against us to take our lives," she said.
A search allows officers to look for things as large as a gun or as small as a razor blade.
"They are hidden within the linings of the bras. They are hidden within linings of underwear," Malzahan said.
The arresting officer does the search, no matter the gender of the person being searched.
Officers acknowledge it's an uncomfortable but necessary process.
"It's intrusive, but the point of the search, again, is to make sure that folks don't have the kind of contraband or weapons on them that could hurt us or harm anyone else," said Sgt. Renae Lockhart. "Our primary concern is safety."
"Safety is paramount to all of us," Deck-Brown said.
"The search that that officer conducted is a search that we’ve trained that officer to conduct. He did what he was trained and we trained him how to do it."
Lorrin Freeman, Wake County district attorney, sees an uncomfortable situation in the video of the DWI stop, but not a crime.
"Searches are invasive by their nature, in order to make sure the officer is protected," Freeman said. She noted that a weapon can be as small as a needle or a razor blade.
"Is this something we would like to see done or have done to us? No. Is it something that is illegal in the context of conducting a search to an arrest? It does not appear to be at this point," Freeman said. "Our role in this situation is to try and make a determination whether there's been any criminal violation. Looking at it preliminarily at this point, we don't see that."
RPD shared the search policies that officers use to decide whether to frisk someone. That training is as follows:
Officers may stop citizens when the officer has reasonable suspicion that the person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime.
The length of the investigative stop is determined by the facts and circumstances of each stop. Generally, more time is allowed for more serious crimes. Officers must conduct their investigation as efficiently as possible and must try to keep the stop as brief as possible.
An officer may use a reasonable amount of force to conduct an investigative stop as dictated by the facts of the stop. If it becomes necessary to restrain a subject with handcuffs, the officer will advise the subject that they are not under arrest but are being temporarily secured to protect the officer and that the handcuffs will be removed as soon as possible.
Handcuffing subjects who are not under arrest shall only be done when it is the least intrusive means available that allows the officer to safely and efficiently conduct their investigation.
Officers must remember that pointing a weapon, handcuffing a suspect or placing the suspect on the ground or in a vehicle can be considered a more extraordinary use of force and restraint than normally required for an investigative stop. Such use of force and/or restraint will require justification. Officers must be careful not to inadvertently turn a stop into an arrest by using too much force. Officers must be able to articulate the facts upon which they based their decision to use force or restraints. Specifically, officers should consider the seriousness of the suspected crime, the suspect’s demeanor, the number of officers present, the number of suspects present, the presence of weapons and the location of the stop.
Generally during an investigative stop, Miranda warnings are not needed to question the subject. If the suspect is handcuffed, then Miranda warnings are required before interrogation. Transportation of a subject being detained is by consent only since transporting without consent may be considered an arrest.
Officers may frisk a subject when facts can be articulated that leads the officer to believe that the subject is armed and a threat to the officer’s safety.
If the subject is in a vehicle and the officer can articulate facts leading the officer to believe that the suspect is armed and is a threat to the officer’s safety, then both the subject and the area of the vehicle in the subject’s immediate control can be frisked for weapons. The “car frisk” is not an exhaustive search but is a very limited look just for weapons within the wingspan of the subject.
If, during a frisk of a person for weapons, the officer feels an object that might be a weapon, then the officer may retrieve the item and secure it. If the officer feels an object that is apparently seizable evidence, then the officer has probable cause to seize the item.