HIAWASSEE, Ga. — “You get on my traffic stop again, I will arrest you!,” Sgt. Tracy James told Sheriff Ken Henderson last week at the beginning of an argument between the two north Georgia law enforcement officers.
Sergeant James with the Hiawassee Police Department had just handed a traffic citation to a driver when the Towns County sheriff walked up and began asking the driver his own questions.
“I’ll arrest you right now,” Sheriff Henderson responded to Sgt. James. As the sergeant tried to explain that surveillance video would show the stop began within city limits, the sheriff said, “shut your f—ing mouth!,” according to the body camera recording obtained by 11Alive Investigates from a source and through an open records request to Hiawassee Police.
Twice during the heated exchange between the two lawmen, the sheriff called the sergeant an f—boy, using a swear word. Once he was inside the patrol car and out of earshot of the sheriff, the sergeant called the sheriff a "motherf—er," also using a swear word, according to the body-worn camera recording.
A dispatcher asked if the sergeant was okay, as part of a a routine safety check during any traffic stop. “10-4,” the sergeant responded seconds after the heated exchange.
“Inside the city or out here?,” Sheriff Henderson asked the driver during the June 24 traffic stop, interrupting and ignoring the city police sergeant who had just handed the driver a citation
The Towns County Sheriff’s Office and the Hiawassee Police Department have been in an ongoing dispute over Hiawassee officers pursuing violators and suspects outside the city limits. Hiawassee is a city in Towns County, on Lake Chatuge near the North Carolina border.
As an elected official, the sheriff answers only to the voters of Towns County. The sergeant answers to the city police chief who in turn answers to the mayor. While the two agencies use the same dispatch center, Towns County 911, they do not have any overlapping chain of command.
“I’m not your boy!,” Sgt. James can be heard telling Sheriff Henderson as the sergeant walked back to his patrol car, pursued on foot by the sheriff. “Thank you,” the sergeant added several times.
Watch the full video below.
The sheriff did not return our call for comment. A sheriff’s office employee called us back with the number of the city attorney who said the sheriff would not answer any questions about the video or the dispute.
“My advice to the sheriff at this time is to not make any statements because this will be an ongoing investigation,” County Attorney Robb Kiker said. “The frustration exhibited by the sheriff on the video is a result of a broader issue and will be referred for further investigation by the proper authorities."
Hiawassee Police Chief Paul Smith issued the following statement: "We regret that this unfortunate event occurred. The Hiawassee Police Department will continue to strive for excellence in safety and service to our citizens and visitors while working with all public agencies to accomplish that goal."
A source close to the sheriff said the dispute began with a pursuit involving the same sergeant on Memorial Day. The sheriff ordered the pursuit terminated, according to the source, but the sergeant continued the pursuit.
A source inside the police department says all of the stops have been initiated within the city limits, but Hiawassee is so small, the drivers often don’t stop until they’re just outside city limits. Any officer in "hot pursuit" is allowed to follow a suspect into a neighboring or overlapping jurisdiction
11Alive Investigates obtained a secret recording through an open records request to the city asking for “recording(s) of Towns County Sheriff Kenneth ‘Ode' Henderson talking with and/or about Hiawassee officer(s).”
On the audio recording, a man identified by a source as the sheriff tells his deputies to not fraternize with Hiawassee officers because they’re “enemies” of the sheriff’s office.
Sources in both the county and city tell us that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation is involved, along with the Towns County District Attorney’s Office. It’s not yet clear if those agencies have launched any formal investigation.
What is clear is that the Towns County Sheriff’s Office and the Hiawassee Police Department are locked in a heated dispute right before the Fourth of July, the busiest weekend of the year for the Lake Chatuge region.