SUNDAY EDITION | Kentucky has few rules, little oversight for volunteer sheriff deputies
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- When Chris Mattingly was pulled over in Louisville last year, he immediately tried to show officers he was one of their own: a special deputy with the Bullitt County Sheriff’s Department.
While still in his car, Mattingly produced a special deputy badge and even called Sheriff Dave Greenwell to verify his status. He was cited at the time for possession of marijuana, and last month he was arrested and indicted for allegedly conspiring to distribute more than a ton of marijuana.
But Mattingly’s exact role with the Sheriff’s Department remains a mystery.
While Mattingly basically had the same powers as a paid deputy for four years, he received no training or monitoring. The department also has no personnel file on him and was initially unsure of what years he served as a special deputy.
And this is perfectly acceptable under Kentucky law.
"Hypothetically, a person could walk in, spend a few minutes talking with the Sheriff and then be walked over and sworn in by a judge," Mike Murdoch, a spokesman for the Bullitt County Sheriff’s Department, wrote in an e-mail. "So basically they are volunteers just like for any other organization, however they have arrest power."
Kentucky Sheriffs can appoint almost anyone a special deputy and convey the full powers of a regular deputy, with some minor exceptions such as not making arrests in domestic violence cases. They are unpaid.
A county can have one special deputy for every 2,500 residents, according to a 1995 Kentucky Attorney General ruling. The Kentucky Sheriffs’ Association, however, doesn’t track how many counties have special deputies or how many there are in the state. And policies on how special deputies are used differ from county to county.
It is not just a Kentucky institution. The issue exploded nationwide earlier this year when a 73-year-old volunteer sheriff's deputy was charged with manslaughter in the April 2 shooting of an unarmed suspect in Oklahoma.
Robert Bates was a close friend of the sheriff and donated thousands of dollars in cash and equipment to the Tulsa County Sheriff’s office, according to media reports. Bates has said he mistook his handgun for a stun gun when helping to restrain Eric Harris.
In fact, the Tulsa shooting is one reason Daviess County Sheriff Keith Cain only has three special deputies – two retired Army major generals and a retired schoolteacher with an expertise in cyber crime - none of whom are involved in making arrests.
"If we have special deputies, they ought to be trained in the same manner as full-time deputies but most agencies are not able to do that," Cain said. "The number one reason (law-enforcement) agencies are sued successfully is a lack of training. To put someone out there in the absence of training is not fair to the officer or the community that he serves. They are potentially a liability.”
Special deputies came under scrutiny in Kentucky five years ago when a federal jury handed down a $6.2 million verdict against the Whitley County Sheriff's Office over the actions of a volunteer deputy.
During a deposition from that lawsuit, former Whitley County Sheriff Lawrence Hodge could not say how many special deputies the department had, or if they received any formal training.
According to an Associated Press story at the time, when Hodge was asked if the deputies receive a formal speech after being sworn in, he said: "Well, it's just the same one I do every time: 'Don't go out here and do nothing stupid.'"
Current Whitley County Sheriff Colan Harrell said he doesn’t have any special deputies, arguing that many in other departments are friends or relatives of sheriffs with no training.
“Would you want your wife or daughter stopped by someone that doesn’t have training?” Harrell asked. “You cannot have special deputies and have a professional sheriff’s department. I promised the people a professional sheriff’s department.”
In Jefferson County special deputies must complete a 200-hour basic training course conducted by certified instructors and complete 40 hours of annual training and pass firearms qualifications, among other certifications.
The 81 special deputies in Jefferson County are subject to the same requirements as regular deputies, except for a physical ability test and attendance at the state academy in Richmond. The special deputies have to pay for their own uniforms and guns.
Lt. Col. Carl Yates, a spokesman for the office, said training is necessary not only to protect the public and deputy, but the department from liability problems as well.
“It’s just good business to train your people as well as you can,” he said.
Many counties rely on these volunteer deputies to help handle duties that the department otherwise would have difficulty covering because of a lack of paid staffers.
“It’s a funding mechanism is what it all boils down to,” said former Fleming County Sheriff Jerry Wagner, executive director of the Kentucky Sheriff’s Association. “If all our counties sheriff’s offices had enough financial resources to do everything they are required to do by statute,” then the special deputies would not be needed.
Wagner also said that many counties are training special deputies and making sure they are paired with a regular deputy when necessary.
“I think you’ll find that counties that utilize them and utilize them right have policies and send them through different types of training and our actually preparing them,” he said.
However, Yates said that many small departments don’t have the time or money to train special deputies. The Jefferson Sheriff’s Office has invited other departments from across the state to have their special deputy’s train with them.
“For some of them, I think they are still in a learning mode as to how the best way to do this because there is very little guidance on a statewide basis,” Yates said.
Yates mentioned that Bullitt was one of the departments that have taken them up on their offer of training.
Bullitt County has 29 current special deputies. Former County Attorney Walt Sholar is a special deputy. Asked what he has done in that role, Sholar told a reporter he needed to talk with the sheriff.
“I don’t want to be the focus of any news story,” he said.
Another special deputy, Lee Curry, was fired earlier this summer but Murdoch declined to release any information because he was a “civilian employee.”
And a former special deputy has filed a lawsuit against Shepherdsville and Mayor Scott Ellis, claiming the mayor made promises for sexual favors.
Murdoch and Sheriff Dave Greenwell did not respond to multiple requests for an interview with WDRB.
However, Murdoch wrote in a statement to WDRB that Greenwell has told special deputies that they need to be with a paid deputy if they make an arrest. He said the department conducts background checks on special deputies and provides in-house training that includes learning how to handcuff someone and other basic law enforcement tasks.
Some special deputies have take-home vehicles because they provide special services such as transferring prisoners, neighborhood patrol and security at sporting events. Others work security in the courthouse or at the local fair.
“By volunteering at these functions, it allows us to be able to provide extra manpower without costs to the taxpayers,” Murdoch said in a statement. “Due to our limited funding, we would not be able to provide most of those services without them.”
As for Mattingly, Murdoch said in the statement that he was a special deputy from 2011 until he was arrested last year. After that, Mattingly met with the sheriff and resigned. He did not provide any services to the department, Murdoch said.
“I’d never even seen him before,” Murdoch added.
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