[Editor’s Note: When The Alamance News first approached sheriff Terry Johnson about chief Jeff Smythe’s allegations that the sheriff was poaching officers from Burlington, he denied the allegation completely. See separate story above. Then Johnson and another top officials suggested we interview some former Burlington police officers who had come to work for the sheriff. They offered to ascertain if any would be willing to talk about their experiences and clarify why they had left the Burlington P.D. Three volunteered before we went to press. These are their stories.]
It may not be the money or the distinguished gray uniforms. But over the past several years, something has prompted a fair number of Burlington police officers to trade in their “shields” for deputies’ stars issued by the office of Alamance County’s sheriff.
This stream of defections recently spurred Burlington’s former police chief Jeff Smythe to write his counterpart at the sheriff’s office and demand, in no uncertain terms, that he refrain from pillaging the county’s municipal police departments to fill out his ranks. Yet, Smythe, who dispatched this letter less than two weeks before he retired, may have misjudged the situation entirely – at least according to some of his one-time subordinates who have since gone to work for the sheriff.
Earlier this week, The Alamance News sat down with three former police officers who recently gave up their long-time positions in Burlington to serve under the command of Alamance County’s sheriff Terry Johnson.
In each case, these newly-sworn deputies had been with the police department for more than a decade, and all three held positions as school resource officers that they insist had been immensely rewarding. All three nevertheless quit their jobs less than six months ago in order to do similar work for the sheriff – and in each instance, they made this transition in spite of the substantial reduction in pay that it entailed.
The salary cut was especially steep in the case of Jack Boyles III, who entered the sheriff’s employ on January 4 after serving some 16 1/2 years in the ranks of Burlington’s police force. Boyles admits that his wages went down by $21,500 when he signed up to work for the sheriff. He is emphatic, however, that this decrease in wages was but a small price to pay for his release from the toxic institutional culture that he said has come to pervade Burlington’s police department.
“It comes down to the agency being run like it’s a thousand-officer department and not one with 138 officers,” Boyles elaborated on Wednesday. “It really made you feel like you were replaceable.”
Financial remuneration was, likewise, a side issue for William Lowe, Jr., who left the Burlington police department on December 21 after some 15 years on the job. Lowe acknowledges that his subsequent entrée into the sheriff’s employ has cost him about $20,000 a year, although he, like Boyles, insists he doesn’t have any regrets about his new gig as a deputy.
Lowe told The Alamance News that his old job in Burlington had gradually become less and less bearable due to nitpicking rules, myopic scheduling practices, and policies for advancement that shortchanged veteran officers such as himself. In the meantime, he said that the police department seemed bent on recruiting an ever younger crop of new officers, who were well-versed in the latest protocol but lacked the age and experience that makes an effective police officer.
Lowe added that he and his fellow veterans found it all but impossible to impress the problems they noticed on the department’s top brass.
“I felt like we had expressed our opinions,” he recalled, “and it got to the point where we stopped having those conversations.”
The response from the department’s higher-ups proved just as discouraging to Mike Paschal, who also joined the sheriff’s office on January 4 after an 11-year tenure with Burlington’s police department. The 51-year-old school resource officer says that, in his case, the impetus for defection had been his desire to remain with the DARE program, which had been the focus of his final four years with Burlington’s police force.
“The biggest issue for me was the ‘five year rule,” Paschal went on to explain. “We could not stay on specialized duty for more than five years, and I was down to one year before I’d be pulled out from my position as a DARE officer and put back on patrol.”
Paschal added that this five-year limit had been one of the innovations that Smythe introduced after he took over Burlington’s police force in 2013. He added that this particular restriction had been the bane of many veteran police officers, who had put in their years on patrol, and graduated to other, more congenial jobs that they nevertheless knew would be torn from them once they became truly proficient.
Paschal noted that his own five-year allotment in DARE was cut short last year when the coronavirus pandemic triggered the closure of public schools throughout North Carolina.
Paschal said that the sheriff’s office had allowed its own school resource officers to continue their work as classes went virtual and students began to encounter new challenges in lockdown. He added, however, that he and his colleagues in Burlington were simply reassigned to patrol – which he confessed was, for him, a rather hard pill to swallow.
“I’m 51-years old,” he acknowledged. “I was laying in bed, dreading going to work, because I was doing something I did not want to do…Since I came to the sheriff’s office, I’ve been sleeping better, my health has been better, and my attitude has improved.”
Boyles insists that he, too, has found life as a sheriff’s deputy much more amenable than his old job in Burlington. He recalled that, during Smythe’s tenure as the city’s police chief, he and his colleagues were subjected to an ever-increasing number of officious requirements and bureaucratic indignities. But for the department’s older officers, few of the chief’s gambits were more galling than the Police Officer Physical Abilities Test – a battery of exercises that they were initially encouraged, then required, to run, and which they ultimately needed to pass in an allotted period of time.
In the end, Boyle and his fellow school resource officers didn’t need a formal invitation from the sheriff to convince them to part ways with the police department in Burlington.
“There was no recruitment,” Lowe insisted on this point.
“Nobody from the sheriff’s office contacted me about a position,” Paschal added. “I called on my own about a position I knew was available.”
“The sheriff didn’t need to steal me from Burlington,” Boyles interjected. “At one point – I kid you not – I even applied at a grocery store.”