Published 1:22 am Sunday, July 10, 2011
Two top law-enforcement officers differ over how a June 15 standoff in Washington involving the Washington Police Department and Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office’s SWAT unit was handled.
Washington police Chief Mick Reed and Chief Deputy Harry Meredith have different views on some actions that occurred during the nine-hour standoff, which resulted in the arrests of two people. Meredith faults Reed for “making unsound, reckless decisions” during the standoff. He also contends Reed “endangered the life of a civilian” and possibly lives of SWAT members.
“I don’t consider it appropriate, I don’t consider it productive to engage in a discussion where there is a difference of opinion in law enforcement,” Reed said in an interview Wednesday. “I have never felt that it would be my place to engage in that kind of conversation in public.”
Reed explains further.
“What we had was a unique situation. We had N.C. Highway Patrol. We had N.C. State Bureau of Investigation. We had the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office. We had the Washington Fire Department. We had N.C. Alcohol Law Enforcement. We had the utilities department of the City of Washington. You basically had a huge group effort. … It would be the easiest thing in the world — and we actually did it ourselves. We sat here and we went back and we critiqued our actions in the proper format so that we can learn from any potential mistakes,” Reed said. “However, given the number of departments, given the number of personnel, given the time frame that this took place — our goal in any case like this is for everybody to walk away. I feel we achieved our goal. Other than that, I don’t feel it would be proper to comment.”
At issue is the standoff involving Joseph Gary Gautier, 33, of 320 E. 12th St. The standoff ended peacefully, with Gautier taken into custody and transported to Beaufort County Medical Center for evaluation. On June 21, Gautier was arrested and charged with making a false bomb report (a felony), discharging a firearm in the city limits and communicating threats. He was placed in the Beaufort County Detention Center under a $250,000 bond, but later he was released after posting bail.
Gautier is scheduled to appear in Beaufort County District Court on Sept. 29, according to court records.
One man at the scene, Carter Leary, a relative of Gautier, was taken away in a marked car belonging to the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office. Leary was charged with resisting a public officer and detained in the Beaufort County Detention Center that afternoon, according to an officer there. Leary was released from the jail by the afternoon of June 16. He’s scheduled to appear in court July 19 to answer to the charge.
Meredith’s responses are to questions emailed to county officials by a media outlet. The questions sought information regarding how the sheriff’s office’s SWAT team dealt with the incident and Leary, including arresting him after he entered the house and removed weapons from it.
“At the time of his arrest, SWAT members had not been informed by the Washington Police Department that they were using Leary as a pawn to enter suspect Gautier’s residence and negotiate or retrieve weapons,” Meredith replied. “This is far outside the bounds of accepted law enforcement tactics and procedures and defies logic and common sense. Not only did it place Leary’s life in extreme jeopardy, it also subjected Officers and civilians to needless danger. Had Leary been injured upon entry into Gautier’s house, law enforcement personnel would have needlessly risked their lives to evacuate him.”
Meredith added that Leary exhibited aggressive and abusive behavior toward law-enforcement personnel.
“The information that the house was possibly rigged with explosives should have precluded the entry of anyone. Law enforcement should have simply continued to wait Gautier out and maintain a safe perimeter,” Meredith replied.
Meredith acknowledges he “ordered SWAT to control Mr. Leary and secure the weapons.”
“Chief Reed failed to inform the on-scene SWAT Commander, Lieutenant Davenport, or me that he asked or allowed Mr. Leary to enter a house occupied by an armed, troubled individual and remove as many weapons as he could carry,” Meredith replied. “If I had known his plan of action, I would have advised him not to allow a civilian to enter the house under any circumstances. If the Chief had persisted, I would have moved the Deputies from the scene rather than participate in Chief Reed’s reckless actions. To do anything else would have been a disservice to this community and the Deputies on the scene.”
Meredith further expounds.
“Chief Reed told Lieutenant Cahoon that he was upset because we had arrested Mr. Leary. Chief Reed stated, ‘He is working with us.’ Once he realized the gravity of his tactical error, he revised his story and told Lieutenant Davenport he had information from an ‘outside source’ that Mr. Leary was entering the suspect’s house to retrieve weapons,” Meredith replied. “Later he asked Lieutenant Davenport why we didn’t know because he had assigned an Officer as liaison to our Tactical Commander. Lieutenant Davenport reported that Officer remained in his air conditioned patrol car and did not maintain contact with him.”
Reed said he supports the deputies’ decision to arrest Leary and did not second-guess their decision to do so.
Meredith acknowledges the deputies who arrested Leary did not return to the scene before Gautier was taken into custody and transported to the hospital.
“Leary stated that he had removed all of the weapons from the suspect’s house. We were told later this statement proved to be false,” Meredith replied. “We realized at that point Chief Reed had instructed or allowed Mr. Leary to enter the suspect’s house. To me, that course of action was unacceptable. Without knowing the eventual outcome, Chief Reed endangered the life of a civilian and depending on the actions of the suspect, the lives of SWAT members and other Officers.”
Reed continues his remarks.
“During the entire situation, I take responsibility for the decisions and for actions of the Washington Police Department. I had contacted the SBI and requested their assistance as well,” Reed said. “At the conclusion of the incident, purely as a precautionary measure, we allowed the SBI to continue to check the residence and to confirm that there were no weapons inside the house.”
Reed said the sweep of the house by the SBI confirmed no weapons were in the house at the conclusion of the standoff.
Meredith contends that based on information provided by Leary, Reed wanted SWAT to enter the house and remove Gautier.
“I decided at that point Chief Reed was making unsound, reckless decisions and we needed to distance ourselves from the incident.”
Meredith, in his replies to the questions, contends Reed’s decision to allow Washington City Council member Doug Mercer to enter Gautier’s house endangered Mercer and could have endangered a SWAT member if it had become necessary to rescue Mercer in the event he had been taken hostage or shot.
“Police Officers who were at the scene stated that Councilman Mercer’s involvement also included giving them direct orders,” Meredith replied. “His elected position and the Chief’s lack of control of Councilman Mercer caused some confusion and unrest among the Officers at the scene.”
Reed further explains his actions.
“I contacted the county and requested assistance from their SRT. We continued through the day in, basically, a holding pattern,” Reed said. “We felt as long as the individual was contained, as long as there was no immediate threat to individuals other than himself, we felt there was no need to move, and we were prepared to wait it out.”
“Mr. Leary became a part of the situation. I was, based on numerous conversations with numerous people, I was aware of his intent. We did not authorize, we did not support his actions,” Reed said. “My decision was to maintain the focus on the unknown, that being the individual inside the house. Once I felt that it was reasonable to assume that the environment had become safer, and at the request of some people, we allowed a gentleman to speak with the individual inside. It was a tactical decision on my part, and while it is very easy for people who were not there to second-guess decisions that I made, I accept that. In this particular case, it led to a peaceful resolution and Washington Police Department followed their promise and transported the individual to a hospital.”
Reed said he and his officers performed a self-critique after the standoff.
“There’s always room for honest critique, but the bottom line here is everyone walked away,” Reed said.
The Standoff: Background
• Joseph Gary Gautier, 33, of 320 E. 12th St., faces charges of making a false bomb report (a felony), discharging a firearm in the city limits and communicating threats. Gautier was placed in the Beaufort County Detention Center under a $250,000 bond.
• The standoff began around 8 a.m. June 15 and ended about 4:45 p.m. when Gautier was taken into custody and transported to Beaufort County Medical Center for evaluation.
• Gautier placed a call to the police telecommunications center early that morning, according to police Chief Mick Reed. Gautier “expressed some displeasure over some issues regarding his environment,” Reed said that afternoon.
• The arrest warrant for making a false bomb report and discharging a firearm in the city reads that Gautier “did communicate a report by calling the Washington Police Department … knowing and having reason to know the report to be false and there was located in a house the doors were booby trapped with grenades and his backyard has ordinances (ordnance) a device designed to destroy and damage the house by explosion, blasting and burning.”
• The warrant also notes that Magistrate Donald R. Sadler found probable cause that Gautier fired his 30-caliber Ruger handgun into the air and ground while in the city limits.
• The arrest warrant for communicating threats reads, “The threat was communicated to Cliff Hales by telling him ‘I see you and I’m going in my house to get my 7mm to shoot you, your vest won’t stop anything I got.’ He also fired a weapon in the air and advised Cliff Hales ‘The next one’s gonna be in your head.’”
• The warrant also reads that “the threat was made in a manner and under circumstances which would cause a reasonable person to believe that the threat was likely to be carried out and the person threatened believed that the threat would be carried out.”
The Standoff: Actions
• “We placed officers in a position to contain the residence while remaining covert. We did not want to appear to be overreacting from a physical standpoint,” Reed said. “A member of our department began a conversation with an individual inside the residence, and based on that conversation, part of which I overheard, it became increasingly clear that the gentleman was in an emotional state that was potentially dangerous.”
• Power to the neighborhood was shut off.
“I was aware of certain actions that the gentleman was doing inside. I felt it was an officer-safety issue. We were not prepared to put an office in danger to shut the power off at that particular house. Therefore, we asked the utilities department to shut (off) the electricity in the smallest area possible — three blocks,” Reed said.
• Area residents were notified about the situation.
“Also at some point, we did a reverse call through our phone system, and we notified by phone everybody in that area that there was an emergency, and we asked them to stay inside until the area was safe. Our officers went door to door, and we did the best we could a keeping innocent citizens from going into the area, either on foot or in cars.”
Despite the department’s best effort, some people slipped through containment lines, Reed noted. Those people were approached and escorted to safe areas, he said.
The Standoff: Looking back
The Washington Police Department performed a self-assessment on its actions during the standoff.
• “I will note that our department had a meeting after this incident, and that purpose of that meeting was to critique our actions from start to finish. We identified some flaws. We identified issues. We made specific decisions to be better prepared the next time. I am not above criticism. When you have a nine-hour situation where split-second decisions have to be made, there’s always room for honest critique, but the bottom line here is everyone walked away,” Reed said.
• Reed declined to single out any one officer for performing exceptionally during the standoff.
“I really believe this was a team effort,” Reed said.
• In his replies to one of the questions submitted by the media outlet — asking if deputies were aware that Gautier was “scared that officers on the scene would kill him” — Meredith replied, “To think that we waited outside for the opportunity to kill him is ridiculous.”
Compiled by Mike Voss, contributing editor