Legal, ethical violations by campus police surface

Legal, ethical violations by campus police surface

Documents obtained by The Sentinel following the resignation of former KSU Chief of Police Roger Stearns have revealed a number of legal and ethical violations by campus police officers.

A Human Resources report compiled after several complaints were received about Stearns states that the public safety department had a high turnover rate and an environment of constant upheaval.

A number of staff members interviewed by HR said Stearns was inconsistent in his treatment of infractions and that a number of violations by officers had gone largely unpunished.

Illegal Searches

At around 2 a.m. on Jan. 17, KSU police Officers Lauren Hanks and Jeffrey Foust entered and searched a student residence without a warrant.

A report written by Sgt. Brandon Cortolano of the police department’s Office of Professional Standards stated the officers were patrolling the Courtyard Apartments on the Marietta campus when they came across an open window and smelled marijuana.

They called a third officer, Sgt. James Roberson, for backup and approached the apartment they believed the odor was emanating from.

The officers’ body cameras revealed that when Hanks knocked on the door, she covered the peephole with her hand to prevent the occupants from identifying who was knocking. The report states that Hanks did not announce herself as KSU police, instead saying, “Hey, it’s me.”

Neither Foust nor Hanks’ body cameras capture either of them mentioning being able to smell marijuana while standing at the door, according to Cortolano’s report.

After about three minutes at the door, the officers heard a toilet flush inside, which they believed may have been the residents trying to dispose of evidence. Foust suggested Hanks try a “police knock,” at which point Hanks knocked on the door more loudly and announced herself as KSU Police.

When the door opened, the officers immediately entered the residence without permission, which the report stated was “a clear violation of the residents’ Fourth Amendment rights.”

Hanks and Foust then proceeded to enter and search each bedroom in the apartment, even interrupting a resident who was using the restroom. Foust yelled out that anyone who was found hiding in the apartment would be arrested for obstruction, and Hanks added, “or have a gun in your face.” They then began to search through the residents’ refrigerator, freezer and cupboard.

Although the “plain view doctrine” allows law enforcement to seize any evidence or contraband that is in plain view in the officers’ line of sight, the report specified that because the officers entered the residence immediately, they could not have had time to observe anything in plain view.

The officers seized a glass pipe and an herb grinder from the apartment, and Hanks wrote in her report that she found a “non-testable amount” of marijuana in the toilet bowl.

In her report on the incident, Hanks wrote she had a right to enter the residence because of “exigent circumstances,” circumstances that do not require a warrant because of some pressing urgency.

Cortolano wrote, however, that Hanks “did not understand the concept of exigent circumstances.”

“This case shows a lack of commitment to the KSU Police core values and our department’s attempt at building trust within our community,” Cortolano wrote. “Our community must be able to trust us as a department and trust in us that we are here to protect them from illegal intrusions.

Reports say Trudi Vaughan, assistant chief of police, suggested an internal affairs investigation into the incident, but Stearns did not initiate one. Instead, he mandated search and seizure training for the entire department. The three officers were each counseled separately.

False Arrest

Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Foster, a police officer with five years of experience with the KSU Department of Public Safety, arrested a student outside of KSU’s jurisdiction after the man allegedly raised his middle finger at Foster.

“I was afraid that maybe there was a domestic dispute in progress, or that maybe they were fighting, so I felt that I had reasonable suspicion to speak with them,” Foster wrote in his incident report.

According to internal affairs files, Foster pulled the vehicle over in the parking lot of the Chick-fil-A on Chastain Road on Feb. 23 and searched the car without permission, ultimately arresting the passenger after finding drug paraphernalia and a firearm in the car.

Foster said he considered the gesture to be disorderly conduct, but Assistant Chief of Police Vaughan disagreed in an investigative document she wrote concerning the case.

“There is a case law that has ruled flipping someone the middle finger, even to a police officer, is freedom of speech, and not a crime,” Vaughan wrote.

Foster claimed he thought he was within his jurisdiction, which encompasses the 500-yard area surrounding the campus, and said the map he has is very confusing to read. Foster told investigators he was concerned about road rage, but later said he thought the gesture might have arisen from a domestic dispute.

“Foster wanted it on the record that he would never intend to do harm to anyone, and he would have had it on his conscience if he did not stop the vehicle and something bad happen to the occupants or anyone else,” Vaughan wrote.

The student, who was at the time a resident of the University Village Suites, was released from Cobb County jail and the charges against him dropped.

Vaughan began an internal affairs investigation, but the investigation was halted by Stearns before it could be completed, according to the original Human resources report. Instead, Foster received a 24-hour suspension without pay. When Human Resources officials asked Stearns about the investigation, he indicated the command staff had never asked for one.

Verbal Abuse of Other Officers

Senior Public Safety Specialist Supervisor Jeremy Meeks phoned Public Safety Specialist Jeannette Alford while she was on duty at the Marietta campus on June 21, calling her a sexual expletive and telling her, “I don’t know what I am going to do to you the next time I see you.”

According to Internal Affairs files, Meeks said the outburst was in response to a rumor he said Alford had spread about him, which he believed was an attempt to sabotage Meeks’ relationship with an officer he had feelings toward.

Meeks was ordered not to have any contact with Alford, but he sent her text messages apologizing for his behavior. Internal Affairs files allude to prior conflict between the two.

An officer interviewed by the command staff said she had known Meeks to call female police officers derogatory names in the past, and said he had, at times, a retaliatory nature.

Chief Stearns opted to give Meeks verbal counseling and requiring him to attend “Dealing with Difficult People,” training through the KSU Center for University Learning. Meeks later resigned.

Assistant Chief Vaughan declined to comment on the any of the incidents detailed, saying she was unable to speak because of policy restrictions.

Related Posts

  • Phil Evans

    Those who are granted power or authority always seize more than they are granted. It’s easy for them to do so, since most people are sheep, and do not assert the power of their Constitutional Rights.

    How can some people cry about the First and Fourth Amendments when they despise the Second Amendment? Want your rights respected? Then fight for ALL of them. Don’t be stupid.

    • Kayla Scott

      I’m not really sure what this article has to do with the Second Amendment. The First and Fourth are equally important to the Second; I don’t think anyone is denying that all of them are equal (though I would argue the First is the most important). Unfortunately many people just out of high school don’t know their rights. But regardless, what was the one kid supposed to do, resist arrest? Even if he knew his rights were being violated, I’m not sure what he could’ve done different.