Claim of racial slur by Sheriff’s employee causes stir

On the eve of a Sheriff’s election, a claim of a Clinch County Sheriff’s Department employee making a racial slur has caused a stir in the community.

A Homerville Police officer filed the complaint, saying Sheriff’s Office employee Patti Herrin made a racial slur in front of him while booking a suspect on May 22. But Clinch County Sheriff Raymond Peterson’s  investigation of the matter, which included a Voice Stress Analysis lie detector test, found Herrin innocent of the accusation, according to a statement posted by the Sheriff Tuesday on his department’s Facebook page.

Days later, a phone recording of an inmate in the Coffee County Jail seemed to contradict some of the findings of the Sheriff’s investigation. But after being made aware of the recording, the Sheriff’s Department got a second statement from the same inmate, who says Herrin never made a racial slur in his presence.

The accusation

On Friday, May 22, at around 5:15 p.m., Homerville Police Officer Derrick Touchton took an inmate to the Clinch County Sheriff’s Office for processing. In his statement, Touchton said that Herrin told him he was “the talk of the town” and asked “you going with a (n-word)?”  Touchton said he was “offended and angered” by Herrin’s conduct and consulted his supervisor about the matter before filing a complaint. Touchton’s statement, taken May 26, has not been released to the public, although a copy of it did show up briefly on Facebook. 

In the Sheriff’s report on the investigation, Investigator James Smith states that Touchton alleges that Herrin held a piece of paper up to her mouth, “in an attempt for no one else to see,” before asking him “You going with a (n-word)?”  Later, in Smith’s statement, it says that the inmate who was being booked said that Herrin looked at Touchton and said he was the “talk of the town,” because Touchton “had made all the recent HPD drug arrests and seemed to be making a name for himself.”

The investigation

Peterson said he asked Smith to start a probe into the accusation on May 26 – the same day Touchton made his statement, and Peterson was informed a complaint was being filed. Homerville City Manager Nan Mikell delivered the complaint on Thursday, May 28.

Smith and Peterson visited the inmate at the Coffee County Jail on May 26 at 4 p.m., according to Smith’s report. The inmate said he had not heard Herrin make a racial slur. Two deputies in the vicinity at the time of the conversation also said they had not heard Herrin say anything resembling a racial slur, although they said they weren’t listening intently and were doing other things. On June 1, the Sheriff’s Department brought in a certified VSA (Voice Stress Analysis) technician from Lowndes County to perform tests on Herrin and Touchton. According to the Sheriff’s report, Herrin’s results found she was being truthful. Shortly before Touchton was supposed to come and take the VSA test, he was instructed not to take the test by City of Homerville officials.

Peterson said that the VSA test is “96 to 98 percent accurate. More accurate than a polygraph.” Smith said the Sheriff’s Department concluded their investigation Monday, June 1.

The announcement

On Tuesday, June 2, at 9:22 a.m., Sheriff Peterson went to Facebook to announce that an investigation cleared Herrin of any wrongdoing in the matter, naming Touchton as the officer who made the complaint. 

In the statement, Peterson said Herrin passed the exam, and ” my office can not prove officer Touchton lied, but I can prove that Ms. Patti Herrin did not lie and did not say what she had been accused of.” The Sheriff’s statement further says that “the officer that made the complaint was given the opportunity to prove he was truthful, and he refused. The officer that made the complaint was given the opportunity to be formally interviewed, and he refused.”

After the Sheriff’s statement was posted, later that day, the Homerville Police Department responded with an online statement on Facebook, refuting some of the Sheriff’s claims. They said Sheriff Peterson and an investigator were provided with a written statement from Touchton and given an opportunity to speak with him.

“HPD requested the Clinch County Sheriff’s Office contact the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to handle the internal investigation so that we could ensure that the investigation would be unbiased and fair to each, the accused as well as the officer, which the Clinch County Sheriff’s Office refused to do so,” the statement said. “Therefore a decision was made at the request of our legal team, not to allow the HPD officer to participate in the internal investigation unless the investigation was handled by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Contrary to what has been stated, the HPD Officer never refused to submit to a Voice Stress Analysis examination and was prepared and willing to do so but was instructed not to comply by our legal team.”

The phone call

Friday,  through an open records request, The News obtained a recording of a phone call from an inmate at Coffee County Jail – the same inmate who was in the room when the discussion between Herrin and Touchton took place. 

The collect phone call was made on Tuesday, June 2,  shortly after the Facebook post by the Sheriff’s office went public. The caller, the inmate, asks the other person to get his father to get in touch with him. The inmate is then told the incident between Touchton and Herrin was on Facebook. The other person on the call asks the inmate if he heard Herrin say something to Touchton while he was being processed. 

“Yeah, I’ve already talked to somebody about that. They told me not to speak about it on the phone. Raymond talked to me about it,” the inmate states. Later in the conversation, the inmate states that he was in the room when the conversation took place, and says, “She told that man he’s the talk of the town, he’s a (n-word), he’s dating a (n-word), this and that. That’s what you talking about?” 

The Sheriff’s Department was made aware of the phone call recording Saturday. Saturday afternoon, Peterson and Smith, after listening to the recording, went back to re-interview the inmate at the Coffee County Jail. They recorded their conversation, asking the inmate if he heard Herrin utter a racial slur.

“She never said it,” the inmate says. “Miss Patti is a wonderful person. I’ve never heard her talk like that.”

The inmate, who starts sobbing during the interview, also states he was not promised anything by the Sheriff’s Department, and his statement wasn’t coerced. He is in jail on a felony marijuana charge. 

Saturday, Smith pointed out that the inmate never actually says Herrin made the racial remark in the phone call recording.

“On that recording, he doesn’t say Patti made that comment. From what I’m gathering, he’s repeating what I told him the accusation was. He was reciting what I asked him.”

Smith also admitted he told the inmate not to speak to anyone about the matter.

“I told him not to talk to anyone about it because he’s already given us the official statement,” Smith said Saturday. “He doesn’t need to talk about it anymore because I don’t want anyone to threaten him or promise him anything.”

Closure?

Both the Sheriff’s Department and the Homerville Police say they contacted the GBI about the  matter, but the GBI said they don’t investigate policy matters.  The City of Homerville issued a statement late last week on the matter, saying, “”the City stands by and has full confidence and faith in the police officer who filed the initial complaint. The City has no need nor reason to question his truthfulness. The City handled the issue properly at every step. The City considers this a personnel matter, and it is up to the Sheriff of Clinch County to address it as he sees fit.”

Peterson, who’s facing three challengers in a primary Tuesday, said his department completed a full investigation, and did all they could do to bring the matter to closure.

“Myself, and the Clinch County Sheriff’s Department, aren’t going to put up with racial slurs or racists in this department. They can go find themselves another job. There’s no place for that here. This was investigated to the fullest, and there was nothing like that said. I wouldn’t tolerate it if there was. We did all we could do.”

 

Disclosure and Editor’s Notes: The author of this story, Len Robbins, is a member of the Homerville City Council, which oversees the Homerville Police Department. Robbins has spoken to no other City Council members about this matter. Robbins spoke to Homerville Police Department Captain Derrek Manning and Police Chief Desmond DiLorenzo for the story only after they determined the matter wasn’t criminal. The News has a policy of not identifying witnesses or complainants unless absolutely necessary. The News identified Officer Touchton in this story because the Sheriff’s Department had already revealed his identity publicly. The News decided to not wait to publish this story for its next print edition (June 10th) because it would be after Tuesday’s primary election. We feel that it would be unfair to not allow voters to consider the information and facts from this story. Rather, we felt it was best to print the story and let the public, and voters, consider its merits. 

1 Comment

  1. Donielle Weaks on June 8, 2020 at 11:26 am

    Clinch county is corrupt to begin with. They have a history of covering for their own and their family!!!! The Barefoot K9 Project families havent forgotten their cover ups nor their lies!!!

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