Sarge Butters: The Police Cat Who Turned A Small Town Upside Down | Dispatches From The Middle
-Sergeant Butters Sergeant Butters. With a name like Sergeant Butters, you’re bound to become popular. But for one small town, a feline member of the force caused a controversial cat-astrophy. In 2018, a stray kitten wandered into the Mocksville Police Department in North Carolina. The officers fed him, cleaned him up and gave him the name “Butterscotch,” which eventually was shortened to simply “Butters.” He quickly became a new office pal the officers enjoyed caring for and even got promoted to sergeant after helping to coax a confession out of a suspect. Sergeant Butters even got his own Facebook account, but unfortunately, some people were not thrilled that a cat had joined the force. In August 2019, Sergeant Butters’ account was taken down, and at first, citizens were given conflicting reasons as to why. The mayor told us one thing. The town manager told us another. And we knew something wasn’t right — and filed a public records request to get more. North Carolina news station WXII obtained emails and texts through the Freedom of Information Act that revealed Sergeant Butters had been a point of contention for the town board. Matt Settlemyer, the town manager, Amy Vaughn-Jones, a member of the town board and Police Chief Pat Reagan were all key players in the situation. Vaughn-Jones kicked off the complaints against Sergeant Butters, sending a variety of texts about one social media post in particular. On April 6th, an accident involving a couple being hit by a car at a crosswalk prompted the Sergeant Butters Facebook account to post a message reminding the town to be careful, as warmer weather meant more pedestrian traffic. Vaughn-Jones texted Settlemyer and said: “The Facebook post should come down!” Settlemyer replied, “I will take care of it.” He went on to say, “I’m sure they were trying to get out some information about being safe downtown now that the weather is nicer.” “We will create a page to separate the PR element from the press release info that needs to be distributed to the public.” Vaughn-Jones replied, “Sounds like a great idea and maybe not from the cat!” Emails from Brent Ward, the former mayor pro-tem of Mocksville, showed concern over the structure of the police department and in one wrote: “I think it would be a good idea that the Facebook page of Sarge Butters be taken down permanently. This should not be the face of our police department.” The page was finally deleted after a controversial post was made about Jeffrey Epstein, a financier who committed suicide in prison after being convicted of various sex crimes. Settlemyer claimed the post was in violation of the town’s social media policy. It was then announced Sergeant Butters would be re-homed. The dismissal of Sgt. Butters caused what can only be called an uproar, or perhaps an “up-meow,” in the community. A lot of folks have hurt this past week, and it could have been all avoided in the first place. It just exposes the character of the leaders in this town. How many people are homeless in this county? How many old people don’t eat? And sitting here worried about a cat, that has a place to eat tonight, a place to sleep tonight, probably has kids watching over him and that’s all we can do, is get together to gripe about a cat? Throughout the exchange, Vaughn-Jones continued expressing concern, including about a pregnant police officer and whether her safety would be an issue around the cat, texting: “Good afternoon, Matt! Also wanted to ask about having a pregnant female officer at the PD with the cat and litter box.” “From my understanding, there is a litter box in the female bathroom which could be fatal for the female officer.” “If the cat is Officer Black’s cat, it might be prudent for the cat to be taken to Black’s home residence.” “I love animals, but I am concerned for the officer’s health and that of the unborn child!” Vaughn-Jones was referring to a parasitic infection transmitted through cat waste, which can lead to deformities in the fetus or even a miscarriage. She went on to say: “I had a few minutes today and stopped in to the PD. When was the last time you were there?” “I noticed the cat was still there and lots of cat toys in the front office area!” “There was a litter box with litter in it in the women’s bathroom!” Later, she texted Settlemyer, saying: “Someone who is speaking and writing for the cat has begun this Facebook protest!” “So again, I ask who writes for Sgt. Butters? Which Officer is responsible!” “And I would not be surprised if there is some health law that prevents the cat in a public workspace
if they are not a service animal! Who is in charge at the PD? The cat?” The texts were not just about Sergeant Butters. In other messages, she asked Settlemyer for details about how the police department, including information about the officers who worked there. So what really happened? Initially, Settlemyer said Sergeant Butters needed attention outside the police department, and refuted claims that the request came from a town board member. To get to the bottom of this cat mystery, we spoke to WXII reporter DaVonté McKenith who has been following the story since the day Sergeant Butter wandered into the station. When I first got the tip that, OK, this Facebook page for a cat was taken offline, I was like OK, what’s the big story? The community was just irritated. They were ticked off and once that story was out, I got several more tips, like OK, there’s more to this. Like, why would the police department take away such good PR? What it boiled down to was small town politics. I think that’s why it caused so much uproar because they knew that the person who wanted the cat removed was getting their way, and they didn’t like that. Initially, the whole thing started off with a lie. I called the mayor and I said, “Is it true that a town board member walked into the police department and demanded the cat be removed?” And the mayor told me, “Yes, that’s what happened.” Before I called the mayor, I called the town manager and he said, “No, that statement is false.” So you have the town manager saying, “No, that’s not true,” but the mayor saying, “Yes, that’s true,” so I said, well, put them both out there, let the community see that, and I mean, you make your own judgment. In some of the messages from that FOIA request, members of the town board claimed they were harassed because of the decision to remove Sergeant Butters and I understand one member even experienced some vandalism? One of them said that they were getting phone calls in the middle of the night saying they were a bad person, they’re going to get voted off the town board because they removed Sergeant Butters, and then after Amy Vaughn-Jones spoke openly at the town hall meeting, there was a dead black snake on her mailbox and there was also vandalism of campaign signs. I know the FBI had to also get involved with that case. At one point in time, I thought stuff was going to happen because also, at one of the town board meetings where Amy Vaughn-Jones first openly spoke, her son was also in attendance saying if someone wants to come to his house, he’ll be waiting. Thankfully, to my knowledge nothing happened, but when you hear stuff like that and that’s presented in the public light, you wonder what’s going to follow and what’s going to be to come. So essentially, Sergeant Butters was a “cat-alyist” for the town board to, as you mentioned, bring up other issues about the police department, and as I understand, there was an internal assessment done of the Mocksville Police Department as a result of all of this? The police assessment happened from an outside consulting firm. They came in, they interviewed a lot of the officers. And when they first started the assessment, they had concerns from the officers that changes are going to happen. They had fear of retaliation, that this stuff was going to get leaked. And there was a lot of stuff with some structural changes — more officers on the street, less command staff. But I think the police chief — he was just recently put in that position — the assessment came back and said a lot of the problems started prior to his enlisting as chief. So I think what he was already doing was stuff that was in the assessment. But I think those were the two big takeaways from that assessment. So the community has reacted very strongly to everything that’s happened and there have been a number of social media initiatives from community members to reinstate Sergeant Butters. There was a Facebook group, initially, called “Save Sarge Butters” and that was just a collective gathering of people who felt strongly about the town board and what happened and you know, they want to see some changes to the landscape of the town board. Another is, there’s two people, I believe, behind a new program called “TAILS,” and TAILS stands for Transparency of Animals in Lieu of Sarge. I know they plan on taking this to court because they also filed FOIA requests and they believe that some of those requests aren’t fulfilled exactly, one hundred percent. They’re not getting what they know is out there. So is there an overall message we can take away from all of this? To journalists, I think, my fellow colleagues, let this be a lesson learned, you know? You get a tip, and you might say, “This is silly, there’s no story here,” but start it off, and if it becomes no story, great. But if you continue to peel those layers of an onion, you’re going to get to the core, and I think that’s exactly what happened here. Sergeant Butters was the catalyst for change at the Mocksville Police Department, ’cause without this, that outside consulting firm, that assessment probably would’ve never happened. But now that it happened, they can make those changes and proceed to a better police department. I think that we saw a lot of good come out of Sergeant Butters in the long run and I think that good is only going to continue as the story progresses. OK so, the question burning in everyone’s mind: Where is Sergeant Butters now? (laughs) I mean, I got text messages and emails like, “Please tell me the cat is OK.” Everyone thought the cat was dead. I said, “Oh my goodness.” He’s with a woman who’s staying far away from this whole debacle, so I think that’s a good thing. She sent me some pictures of him. He’s well, he’s happy, you know, but I think that’s for the better. I’m glad someone else at the department has him until this dies down, but yeah. He’s alive and well. Where do you stand on the Sergeant Butters issue? Should the police department be allowed to keep him? Or do you believe the cat has no place there? Perhaps you’re of the notion that, as one community member said, “It’s all a waste of time”? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below. I’m Alexandra Stone, thanks for watching. Click here for the next video. And if you liked this episode, subscribe for more stories like this.