Legally speaking, sheriff and deputies aren’t county employees

On April 16, 2006, the Bladen County Sheriff’s Department responded to a report of a disturbance in Elizabethtown. Sgt. Gary Edwards, Deputy Deborah Nelson and Deputy Anthony Smith arrived on the scene to find Billy Ray Cook crawling on his stomach in the street.

Upon spotting the officers, Cook began yelling, “Please don’t let them shoot me.” Cook strenuously resisted being cuffed and shackled, so the officers shocked him with their Tasers. Unfortunately, this—combined with a massive quantity of cocaine in Cook’s system—killed him.

In 2008, Cook’s widow, Angie Parker, filed suit against Bladen County, the sheriff’s department, the sheriff and the officers involved. The suit accuses them of using excessive force, wrongful death and negligent training and supervision.

The U.S. District Court, Eastern District of North Carolina ruled that Parker could not sue Bladen County because the sheriff’s department is substantially independent from county government. A deputy is “an employee of the sheriff, not the county,” Judge James Dever noted, and the sheriff has exclusive authority over his or her employees.

Parker’s claim against the sheriff’s department also failed. While state law allows lawsuits against counties, there is “no statute authorizing suit against a North Carolina county’s sheriff’s department,” Dever ruled.

That leaves as defendants Bladen County Sheriff Steve Bunn and the officers, who contend it was the cocaine that killed Cook.

The officers said they shocked Cook nine times. Their Tasers indicated 38 discharges, however. The incident marked the first time the officers had used Tasers outside of training exercises.