On the warm night of July 12, two squad cars driven by on-duty officers roared down the Caledonia municipal airport runway.
A Houston County sheriff’s deputy was behind the wheel of a Dodge Charger. A city of Caledonia officer drove a Crown Victoria.
The officers weren’t chasing a suspect.
They were chasing each other.
Apparently the drag race was inspired by the purchase of a new cruiser in Caledonia, according to Houston County Chief Deputy Scott Yeiter.
Once superiors learned about it, the Caledonia officer was suspended for a month.
The Houston County deputy, however, was not formally disciplined, a decision that has created friction between the sheriff’s department and the Houston County Board.
The incident became public this week at a county board meeting, where former commissioner Kevin Kelleher brought it up and asked commissioners to address what he alleged in an interview as a “culture of, quite frankly, bad behavior” within the sheriff’s department.
In an interview, Yeiter defended the way the department handled the incident and described it as “an employee coaching session.”
He said the deputy’s decision to drag-race a county squad car while on duty “wasn’t egregious enough to have a disciplinary letter placed in his file.”
Yeiter declined to name the deputy, as did Houston County Sheriff Doug Ely. Ely declined to comment when asked to explain why the deputy wasn’t formally disciplined.
Caledonia Police Chief Kurt Zehnder also declined to comment on the incident and declined to release the name of the Caledonia officer involved.
The Houston County Board has asked Ely to attend the next meeting to brief commissioners on the incident and address Kelleher’s comments.
“The issue is a little bigger than what the sheriff and chief deputy are making it,” Commissioner Jack Miller said.
Miller said commissioners are frustrated because they were aware of the incident previous to the meeting — but not because they heard about it from the department.
“I certainly would have liked the full story from the sheriff instead of having citizens tell me,” Miller said.
Ely said in an email to the commissioners that he won’t attend the next meeting.
“The DVD issue and the driving complaint are done and over with,” he wrote in the email, obtained by the Daily News. “Any more discussion about these items on their part will be considered harassment.”
The DVD issue Ely was referring to was a 2009 incident where county employees were accused of using county equipment to illegally copy DVDs and sell them. Two county officials — none in the sheriff’s department — were formally reprimanded. The sheriff’s department did not investigate the issue or request an independent investigation, a decision Kelleher continues to criticize the department for.
“We have law enforcement that just does not want to be accountable,” Kelleher said. “That is not giving people confidence in the county that they have a law enforcement agency that is not only enforcing the law but obeying it.”
“Houston County law enforcement is the butt of a lot of jokes right now,” Kelleher added.
If Ely doesn’t come to the next board meeting, Miller said, the board will have to discuss its next move.
“(Ely) doesn’t necessarily answer to the board, but we are the budgeting board, and I believe our jurisdiction does cover employees in his office,” Miller said.
It’s unknown who won the race, or what speeds the two officers reached. Ely said he didn’t know, and Yeiter declined comment.