An undercover Iredell County Sheriff's Office deputy recently purchased drugs from undercover Statesville police officers, raising questions about communications between the two agencies.
Statesville Police Chief Tom Anderson said undercover officers from his department were working a week-long case when they met with someone interested in selling a small amount of marijuana.
The undercover SPD officers met with the individual in the parking lot of a local store to make the deal, Anderson said.
But the officers became suspicious that the seller was, in fact, an undercover deputy, Anderson said.
SPD officers placed a call to Capt. David Ramsey, who heads the sheriff's office narcotics unit, and were told the seller was not a deputy, Anderson said.
"At that point we proceeded like we normally do and placed him under arrest," the chief said.
After the arrest, investigators from the sheriff's office arrived and confirmed the seller was an undercover deputy and he was released, Anderson said.
Sheriff Phil Redmond said the initial denial that the deputy worked for the sheriff's office was a mix-up.
"We had several large-scale operations going on at once, and the wires got crossed on this one," he said.
Ramsey said incidents of this type can be common when several agencies are working drug operations at the same time.
He said there are protocols required for reverse drug operations, including having prior approval by the district attorney and a court order signed by a judge.
"Technically, you have an officer committing a felony, so to prevent the possibility of an officer being tried for a crime, all of these steps have to be followed," Ramsey said.
Anderson said all of the proper protocols were followed, but he is concerned about the communications issues.
"Regardless of the paperwork or lack of paperwork, the communications issue is the most important. Paperwork is not what's going to keep an officer safe," he said.
In some instances, Ramsey said, the sheriff's office does contact the three police departments in the county about specific cases.
Sometimes the cases merge and officers find they are investigating the same people so joining the operations makes sense.
Other times, he said, those agencies are not notified.
"It depends on the circumstances," Ramsey said.
Anderson said he hopes to use this incident as a means to improve communications between the sheriff's office and police department, particularly where undercover drug operations are concerned.
Ramsey said these reverse drug deals are inherently dangerous.
That's one of the reasons, he said, that the sheriff's office doesn't do reverse buys except in major cases.
"Unless it's a major dealer, it's not worth it," he said.
Anderson said he's thankful no one was hurt in this case, and that's why he believes improved communications are vital.
"We need to be calling and saying, 'We've got an operation here,' and they need to be doing the same thing," Anderson said. "We need to cross-reference our cases. That's the level we need to be at. We need to be working together. That's the best-case scenario."
Anderson said the recent difference of opinion between the SPD and ICSO over revocation of a bill that allowed the SPD countywide jurisdiction played no part in this case.
"It was inside the city limits so that wasn't a factor," he said.
A bill passed the N.C. Legislature rescinding the 30-plus-year-old law that gave the SPD countywide jurisdiction.
In his support of the bill, Redmond said, having city officers operating outside of Statesville presented an officer-safety issue.
Anderson said that's the biggest issue in this case.
"It was a learning experience. Fortunately, nobody was hurt," he said.