3 Durham police officers arrested on false imprisonment, assault charges

Jan. 18, 2013 @ 11:16 PM

Three Durham police officers and three others were arrested Friday after a disturbance call that involved an alleged larceny.

The officers, including a lieutenant, were charged with false imprisonment and assault that apparently happened at two homes, and stemmed from the theft of items that included a wallet with police identification from a club on Ninth Street.

Durham Police Lt. Ryan A. Freeman, Durham Police Officer Stacy L. Armstrong and Durham Police Officer Erin V. Espinola were charged with one count each of false imprisonment and assault. In addition, Armstrong was charged with two counts of misdemeanor breaking and entering, and Freeman and Espinola were each charged with one count of breaking and entering.

All three officers, who were off duty when the incident occurred, were immediately placed on administrative leave with pay, Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez said Friday evening.

“They were placed on administrative leave when I found out what was going on [Friday],” Lopez said. “Immediately, they were stripped of their police powers.”

Officers responded to a disturbance call shortly before 1 a.m. Friday at a home on Trevor Circle. A few minutes later, they were sent to a related call at a home on Landis Drive.

Police spokeswoman Kammie Michael said in a news release that investigators learned that the disturbance involved an earlier alleged larceny of an iPhone, a wallet containing police identification and a coat from a club on Ninth Street.

Lopez wasn’t sure of the club’s name.

According to investigators, several people allegedly pushed their way into a residence in an effort to retrieve the property. During the disturbance, a man was chased to another location, where he was allegedly assaulted.

Lopez said he wasn’t at liberty to describe the nature of the alleged assault. “I really can’t go too far into it, because we’re still investigating it, and there might be other charges coming,” he said.

Lopez said all charges are misdemeanors.

“There was no felonious intent that we could see in any of it,” Lopez said. “We wouldn’t have charged them if we didn’t believe that the charges are true. We’re confident with the charges that we’re bringing now.”

Lopez declined to speculate on the officers’ motives.

“I wouldn’t really be able to speak to motivation at all,” he said. “It’s hard to fathom what goes through someone’s mind when they involve themselves like this.”

He said more people could be charged in the case, but probably not more officers.

“At this point, we’ve not seen any reason to charge more officers, unless something turns up in the investigation,” he said.

Lopez said in the news release that “although all parties were acquaintances, we believe this was an isolated incident.”

He commended the arresting officers for their professionalism.

“The officers who responded took a moment to be sure that they had all the facts together, and they fully pushed the investigation forward,” Lopez said. “The investigators worked very hard, even though three of [those arrested] were their own, to get to the truth and bring charges where they needed to be.”

“I think the community needs to see that we will police ourselves, and take the proper action after conducting a full and thorough investigation.”

The charges were filed Friday afternoon after an investigation by the Durham Police Department’s Criminal Investigations Division. The criminal investigation “is ongoing, and further charges may be filed,” the police release stated.

The department’s Professional Standards Division (internal affairs) is also doing an internal investigation of the officers, which is standard procedure.

Freeman, 40, joined the Durham Police Department in May 1994 and was a watch commander assigned to the Patrol Bureau. His annual salary is $68,859.21.

Espinola, 31, joined the department in August 2005 and Armstrong, 27, was hired in January 2011. They are assigned to the Patrol Bureau. Espinola’s annual salary is $48,639.10 and Armstrong’s is $37,000.

All three officers were released Friday after appearing before a magistrate and posting $4,000 unsecured bonds. They are due in court Feb. 19.

The others charged in the incident are Jessica Lobaugh, 30, of Timberlake; Benjamin Brackett, 32, of Timberlake; and Jennifer Norton, 30, of Rougemont. Each is charged with one count of assault and misdemeanor breaking and entering.

They were released Friday on written promises to appear in court Feb. 14, a Durham County magistrate said.

Lopez said he was notified of the arrests “very early” in the morning Friday.

“These officers don’t waste any time notifying me about something so serious,” he said. “You don’t go back to sleep after something like this.”