CLEVELAND, Tenn. — Monster Hurricane Irma dropped some fast cash on some Bradley County deputies for pulling guard duty at Target and Walmart stores in storm-hit areas.
But it also caused some blowback Monday at the Bradley County Commission meeting over worry about liability if a uniformed deputy was hurt or injured someone else while doing private security work in another state.
And the sheriff's office said a dust-up over a deputy carrying an AR-15 while guarding a Miami-area Home Depot — a flap that led to calls to the Bradley sheriff's office from high-ranking officers in the Florida Department of Law Enforcement — was a case of mistaken identity.
Sheriff Eric Watson announced in a Sept. 12 Facebook video seven Bradley sheriff's officers and three constables had gone to North Carolina in personal vehicles to help after the hurricane.
"Other states have been calling for law enforcement assistance for security coverage of different areas in different states," Watson said.
Four more Bradley officers, plus the Benton police chief and his sergeant, left that morning for south Florida, he said.
"They're already in Miami, and they're assisting Miami-Dade County as we speak as well, providing security coverage. It's an honor for other states to put confidence in our guys here in Bradley County and ask for help," Watson said in the video.
It's profitable for the guys, too: $2,160 for 72 hours' work in Miami for security contractor Off Duty Services, of Katy, Texas. The company would not supply officers vehicles, gear or equipment, according to a copy of the job requirements provided by the sheriff's office.
County commissioners didn't know any of those details at their Monday meeting, though.
At the end of a short business session, Commissioner Thomas Crye read a statement saying that sending the deputies "appears to be a worthy cause," but there were "serious issues on potential county liability" at stake. He noted a dozen pending lawsuits against the sheriff's office totaling around $20 million.
Crye said neither state had asked for out-of-state officers' help, and the Bradley crews were "out of their jurisdiction and not trained on local protocol."
He referred to Sept. 14 calls to Bradley County by two officials with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, who said Florida police chiefs had seen Bradley County officers dressed in black and toting AR-15s in their towns.
The Times Free Press obtained the audio records from the Bradley 911 Center. Crye also played them in the finance committee meeting later Monday.
In the first call, a Florida Department of Law Enforcement official asked Bradley County Sheriff's Office Lt. Yvonne May to identify Bradley deputies Kolby Duckett and Jeff Wagner. He warned the governor had not asked for outside help and said the deputies had no authority there.
The follow-up call was from Troy Walker, special agent in charge of the Miami-Dade region for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. He said people had reported seeing a group in a rented van, in full uniform with tactical vests and long guns.
"I'm not sure they understand that Florida's not an open-carry state," Walker said. He mentioned a Home Depot manager who saw the armed men in his store. He said they showed papers, and "they're under the impression that the governor ordered them to be here, and that's not true."
Walker said he was "trying to avoid any problems."
"I'm sure these guys have no idea what Miami's like. We have tons of cops down here, we've got all kinds of suppression teams, you name it, and I just don't want a blue-on-blue situation because everybody's on high anxiety right now."
He said the chiefs told him the deputies seemed like "really nice young men" who might have been "bamboozled" by the security company.
Crye said he wanted the sheriff's office to provide copies of requests for assistance, plus proof of liability waivers and training in local protocols from each state. He also wanted to know who paid for the deputies' travel expenses and whether they were on their own time.
Bradley County Sheriff's Office Lt. James Bradford said Off Duty Services hired both the Florida and North Carolina contingents. He supplied a copy of an authorization letter noting the state of emergency declared by Gov. Roy Cooper and introducing the holder as a sworn law enforcement officer who would be working at a specific Walmart store in Laurinburg, N.C.
Bradford said all the employees who went to North Carolina already were scheduled off or took vacation to make the trip. He said both groups used private vehicles, but were allowed to wear their sheriff's office gear and sidearms since the job specs asked for "clothing that represents who you are." He said he didn't know if any carried their AR-15s in their vehicles, but said none carried an AR-15 openly while providing security coverage.
And he said whoever that was at the Home Depot in Miami-Dade, it wasn't a Bradley deputy.
"It is true that personnel from our agency [were] providing security coverage for Target stores in the Miami-Dade [sic]," Bradford wrote in an email Monday. "Furthermore, our personnel NEVER frequented nor provided security coverage for a Home Depot."
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement did not respond to a request for clarification by press time Monday night.
At Monday's meeting, Commissioner Howard Thompson supported the sheriff's office saying it was common for public safety and emergency responders to volunteer in emergencies.
And Commissioner Charlotte Peak chided Crye's public statement from the dais, saying he should have aired his concerns with Watson privately first.
Commissioner Dan Rawls pointed out that Watson retained an attorney after commissioners voted last month to go forward with a forensic audit of the BCSO budget, looking for wrongdoing. Commissioners were told to direct questions to the attorney, Andrew J. Brown.
"Until Friday, we couldn't talk to the sheriff," Rawls said.
Friday, though, Watson dropped Brown, according to an email Brown sent to County Attorney Crystal Freiberg.
Watson, in a statement, said he hired Brown as counsel for the department when the commission was talking about bringing in an independent auditor, while Watson had his own attorney for six felony counts he faces related to his side business selling used cars.
When commissioners decided to use the state comptroller's office for the forensic audit, Watson said, he didn't feel the department needed separate representation.
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416.