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RALEIGH, N.C. -- A judge said Thursday that a state trooper who was caught on video kicking his police dog was fired under improper pressure from the governor's office and should be reinstated with back pay.
The ruling from administrative law Judge Fred Morrison Jr. is a recommendation, and the fate of former Trooper Charles Jones rests with the State Personnel Commission. The Highway Patrol, which maintains Jones was fired independently of Gov. Mike Easley's opinion, said it will fight to keep Jones out of the patrol.
A cell phone video, taken by another trooper in August, shows Jones suspending the dog, Ricoh, from a railing and then kicking him at least five times. The video and testimony in an earlier hearing before Morrison showed that troopers used beatings, stun guns and other methods to discipline and train the patrol's dogs. On April 30, officials suspended the patrol's canine program. The state official who oversees the patrol said Thursday that the program could be reinstated within two months.
Morrison's decision on Jones comes after an April hearing. Jones' attorney said Thursday that he was pleased with the decision, which also recommends that the state pay Jones' attorney's fees.
Morrison wrote in his decision that he thinks Jones was fired because officials in the governor's office saw the video and said Jones had to go.
"Because of pressure felt from the governor's office, the Patrol did not give meaningful consideration to [Jones'] responses to the charges against him," Morrison wrote.
Bryan Beatty, secretary of the state Department of Crime Control and Public Safety, which oversees the patrol, said he talked to the Governor's Office and knew Easley wanted Jones out. But Beatty said he -- not Easley -- made the decision to fire Jones.
"The governor and I have worked together for many years, and he is the governor, and he appointed me, but he appointed me and expects me to make the decisions that are based on the facts," Beatty said. "I never had a difference in opinion once I had all the information and saw all the facts."
Easley has not backed off his stance on Jones. A spokesman released an unsolicited statement Thursday after Morrison ruled.
"Dog experts say Trooper Jones' conduct was completely unacceptable," Easley said in the statement. "If the state has to resort to that level of cruelty to train dogs as demonstrated in the video by Trooper Jones, then they will simply not be in the dog business."
Beatty said Thursday that he expects to have a decision on whether to continue the program within about two months.
"I believe we can find a way to reinstate the K-9 program in a way that carries out the patrol's mission," Beatty said.
The reinstated program would have new training policies and may change or limit the role of patrol dogs, which were used for drug sniffing, tracking and to help keep suspects under control.
Morrison, the judge, had his own thoughts about the program's future. In his six-page opinion, which lists by name eight dogs Morrison has owned, Morrison recommended that the patrol buy dogs that are already fully trained and would be handled by troopers who are also trained and who have to follow written guidelines.
The patrol's 10 dogs are living with their Highway Patrol handlers. They are not working.
Ricoh, a Belgian Malinois, is living with a different trooper and has been retired from service.
Staff writer Mandy Locke contributed to this report.
At a Glance
- The State Personnel Commission will consider Judge Fred Morrison's recommendation. Both sides will have a chance to argue.
- The agency will then have to make a decision, which could be appealed to Superior Court.
- The review of the patrol's dog program is continuing. Bryan Beatty, who heads the state agency that oversees the patrol, said he expects a decision within about two months. The program will likely continue but with new training guidelines and policies. Beatty said the patrol may also reconsider whether dogs will continue to be aggressive with suspects on command.