Last updated: May 23. 2014 11:56AM - 2158 Views
By - cfriedman@civitasmedia.com - 910-817-2670

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Sheriff James E. Clemmons Jr. didn’t waste any time when he learned that a female detainee at the Richmond County Jail had accused a detention officer of engaging in a sexual encounter with her.

Clemmons told the Daily Journal this week that he received an internal affairs complaint from the woman on April 27. He began looking into the matter and fired the jailer the next day. Clemmons explained that the allegation itself remains unproven — the State Bureau of Investigation will determine what exactly took place — but the sheriff found evidence of jail policy violations.

“It’s kind of hard to determine the validity of the complaint as far as truthfulness,” Clemmons said. “…But there were things in that complaint that were disturbing to me and, based on that, it was an immediate release of duty.”

William Arthur “Ottie” Cline III, 46, was dismissed April 28. Richmond County prosecutors will decide, with input from the SBI, whether his conduct ran afoul of the law and merits criminal charges.

Staff misbehavior can befall any business or government agency. The way it’s handled is ultimately what defines its leader, and thus far, Clemmons has shown candor and poise. He’s set the tone for a sheriff’s department that takes seriously its commitment to public accountability.

The sheriff’s swift and unapologetic firing of a jailer who — at the very least — broke departmental rules was necessary and appropriate. But Clemmons cautioned against a rush to judgment, explaining that the accusation of sexual misconduct has not been proven. Cline has not been charged with a crime and shouldn’t be prematurely tried in the court of public opinion.

“Allegations are what they are,” Clemmons said. “It doesn’t make it a matter of fact. This man has not been convicted or condemned of anything.”

Not only did the sheriff stress that Cline enjoys the presumption of innocence, he also noted that the detainee who accused Cline of having sexual contact with her was not serving an active jail sentence. She was jailed only to ensure her appearance in court and is herself considered innocent until and unless our justice system finds her guilty.

Clemmons referred to the woman as “a person in custody” rather than an inmate to hammer home this distinction. We’re heartened and encouraged that Richmond County’s top law enforcement officer sincerely believes in the constitutional presumption of innocence.

In a world where some big-city lawmen trumpet each arrest in triumphant tones and parade the accused past television cameras, it often seems like folks are considered guilty until proven innocent. That’s precisely the opposite of how it’s supposed to work, and Richmond County’s sheriff hasn’t lost sight of that.

There are a lot of unanswered questions about the alleged goings-on at the jail. SBI agents have the case under their microscope, and until they complete their report for District Attorney Reece Saunders, Clemmons is staying mum about the specifics. A spokeswoman for the N.C. Department of Justice tells us the investigation is still in its early stages.

The sheriff pledged to be open and transparent. When he can say more about the matter, he will. If Clemmons’ deft and responsible handling of the situation thus far is any indication, we expect that’s a promise our sheriff will keep.

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