Georgia deputy who shot absolved man had prior firing for excessive force. Critics blame the sheriff

Nov 19, 2023, 10:16 PM

When Staff Sgt. Buck Aldridge fatally shot Leonard Cure during a roadside struggle after pulling him over for speeding, it wasn’t the first time a traffic stop involving the Camden County sheriff’s deputy had spiraled into violence.

Last year, Aldridge dragged a driver from a car that crashed after fleeing the deputy on Interstate 95. Body and dash camera video obtained by The Associated Press show the driver on his back as Aldridge punches him. Records indicate the deputy faced no disciplinary action.

Personnel records show Aldridge was fired in August 2017 by a police department in the same Georgia county after he threw a woman to the ground and handcuffed her during a traffic stop. The Camden County Sheriff’s Office hired him nine months later.

Aldridge stopped Cure for speeding Oct. 16 and ended up shocking the 53-year-old Black man with a Taser after he refused to put his hands behind him to be cuffed. Body and dash camera videos show Cure fought back and had a hand at the deputy’s throat when Aldridge shot him point-blank.

Relatives have said Cure likely resisted because of psychological trauma from spending 16 years imprisoned in Florida for an armed robbery he didn’t commit. Officials exonerated and freed him in 2020.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is investigating Cure’s death and will submit its findings to prosecutors. Aldridge’s attorney said the video shows he fired in self-defense. Regardless, critics question whether he should have been wearing a badge given his history of aggression.

“This guy should have never been on the force,” said Timothy Bessent Sr., president of Camden County’s NAACP chapter.

The AP obtained Aldridge’s personnel records as well as reports and videos from the June 2022 chase and arrest using Georgia’s open records law.

A former U.S. Marine, Aldridge, 41, worked nearly five years for the Kingsland Police Department in Georgia’s southeast corner. His file shows Aldridge was disciplined for using unnecessary force in February 2014 and May 2017. The second time he was suspended for three days without pay.

The department fired Aldridge for his third infraction just three months later. Police records say Aldridge was assisting with a traffic stop when he tried to handcuff a woman — not to arrest her, but to keep her outside her car. One deputy told investigators Aldridge cuffed the woman after “picking her up and throwing her on the ground.” She was cited for letting an unlicensed person drive her car.

Aldridge was hired by the sheriff’s office in May 2018. He disclosed his firing on his job application.

Aldridge’s termination wouldn’t automatically disqualify him from working for another agency, though some would consider it a huge liability, said retired police Maj. Neill Franklin.

“If someone’s terminated from another police department for use of excessive force, they’re not getting hired by the Maryland State Police or the Baltimore Police Department,” said Franklin, who led training programs for both agencies. “It’s just not worth the risk.”

Bessent and other advocates say it’s an example of Camden County Sheriff Jim Proctor tolerating unnecessary violence.

Proctor, who has been sheriff for a decade, declined to comment. Spokesman Capt. Larry Bruce cited the investigation into Cure’s death and pending civil litigation involving other deputies.

Since last year, six Camden County deputies have been indicted on felony charges and fired for violence against jail detainees and a motorist.

In September 2022, jail security cameras recorded guards rushing into the cell of Jarrett Hobbs, who was punched in the head and neck and hurled against a wall. Hobbs was charged with assaulting jailers until his attorney obtained the video. His charges were dropped, and three deputies were indicted.

Two more jailers were charged and fired for incidents in March and July. Security video showed one push a detainee to the floor and punch him before another guard intervened. The other deputy shoved a handcuffed detainee headfirst into a door, knocking him unconscious.

“You’ve got these deputies running wild and doing what they want to do,” said Harry Daniels, a civil rights attorney who won a legal settlement for Hobbs. “The consequences have come from the GBI and the district attorney’s office. It should not come from an outside agency.”

He points to Christine Newman, named “Deputy of the Month” two months after a dash camera recorded her slapping a handcuffed driver across the face and slamming the woman’s head into a patrol SUV. The driver had refused to exit her vehicle after being pulled over for a rolling stop Jan. 16, 2022.

Newman was fired a year later after being indicted on charges including aggravated assault and violating her oath of office. She has pleaded not guilty. Newman’s attorney, Robert Persse, called her a “loyal deputy” whom he looks forward to defending in court.

The number of deputies facing charges “indicates a culture that may not encourage use of force, but certainly tolerates inappropriate use of force,” said retired LaGrange, Georgia, Police Chief Louis Dekmar.

“If folks are held accountable and there are clear lines, you generally don’t see that in law enforcement agencies,” said Dekmar, a former president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

A spike in claims involving the sheriff’s office caused Camden County’s government to get dropped by its insurance company in July, said Mike Spiers, the county’s risk management director. The county got new policies, he said, but its deductible for liability jumped from $25,000 per claim to $250,000.

Aldridge was placed on administrative leave while the GBI investigates Cure’s death.

“Buck Aldridge is a fine officer and the video speaks for itself,” said Adrienne Browning, Aldridge’s attorney. “It’s clear his life was in danger and he defended himself.”

Video released of the fatal confrontation along I-95 shows Aldridge telling Cure he’s being charged with reckless driving for speeding in excess of 100 mph (161 kph). Cure argues, but obeys commands to get out and put his hands on his truck. However, he ignores commands to put his hands behind him.

That’s when Aldridge fires his Taser into Cure’s back. Cure fights back, and video shows them grappling beside the highway. Cure maintains a grip on Aldridge’s face and neck after being struck with a baton.

“Yeah, bitch!” Cure says. Then he slumps to the ground after Aldridge fires a single shot.

Dekmar, Franklin and a third expert told AP they believe the shooting was legal, as Aldridge appeared to be in danger when he fired. But they also criticized how Aldridge began the encounter by shouting at Cure and said made no effort to deescalate.

“He escalated the situation with Mr. Cure,” said former Memphis police officer Thaddeus Johnson, a criminal justice professor at Georgia State University and a senior fellow for the Council on Criminal Justice. “He has no control over his emotions.”

Johnson said Aldridge showed a similar lack of control during a June 2022 arrest after chasing two speeding cars.

After one car crashes, body and dash camera video shows Aldridge shouting expletives as he approaches with his gun drawn. The driver is on his back when Aldridge starts dragging him headfirst from the car, then punches him.

The driver resists being cuffed but complies after another deputy’s dog bites him and Aldridge shocks him with a Taser. The driver was charged with drug trafficking, reckless driving and fleeing an officer.

Aldridge was promoted to staff sergeant two months later. His sheriff’s personnel file shows no disciplinary actions.

Johnson said he sees no justification for Aldridge punching the arrested driver. Even if prosecutors don’t charge him in Cure’s death, he said, “from what I saw in the video, he deserves to be fired.”

“We have to hold officers to a higher standard,” Johnson said, “even though they are human.”

United States News

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Georgia deputy who shot absolved man had prior firing for excessive force. Critics blame the sheriff