Groups: Pepper spraying incident a ‘blatant’ use-of-force violation

Montgomery County Sheriff Phil Plummer
Montgomery County Sheriff Phil Plummer

A sergeant who pepper sprayed a restrained inmate at the Montgomery County Jail appeared to violate the jail’s and sheriff’s office’s use-of-force policies, according to civil rights and prisoners’ rights advocates who have reviewed details of the case.

The incident led to a lawsuit by the inmate, Amber Swink, 25, of Brookville. The pepper-spraying was recorded on video, and the lawsuit led Sheriff Phil Plummer to state that the jail staff member, Sgt. Judith Sealey, violated policy when she pepper-sprayed Swink while she was strapped into a restraint chair.

Sealey was issued a letter of caution following the incident but has since been promoted to captain and remains on duty.

A prisoner-rights advocate who has seen the video says the incident shows Sealey’s disregarded the jail’s policies prohibiting the use of force to punish inmates.

“The use-of-force policy is crystal clear — and I’m quoting it here: ‘In no event is physical force justifiable as punishment,’” said David Singleton, executive director at the Ohio Justice & Policy Center, which represents inmates in Ohio’s jails and prisons and advocates for criminal justice reform. “What Amber Swink was subjected to was punishment.”

Swink has sued Montgomery County, county Sheriff Phil Plummer and several jail staff in federal court, claiming her treatment while she was being held last fall violated her civil rights.

Swink had been arrested following a domestic disturbance. Her attorney has called for Sealey to be fired and charged with a crime.

Pepper spray is a common tool that law enforcement and detention officers use to bring combative and disorderly people under control. It is seen as effective at defusing situations without causing serious physical harm. Montgomery County Jail staff have used pepper spray more than 170 times since the start of 2015, according to use-of-force reports from the jail division and the sheriff’s office’s general orders manual.

But the sheriff’s office’s general orders manual states that deputies use pepper spray “only when lesser levels of force are not successful or appropriate, but before a level of force that requires bodily harm to the subject.”

Incidents involving inmates who were pepper sprayed while fully restrained have been highly controversial and have led to civil litigation and criminal charges against police and jail staff in Ohio and other states.

Jail staff are instructed to try to defuse confrontational situations with inmates and to avoid confrontations that could turn violent.

Staff members are instructed to contact the sergeant to try to resolve escalating problems with inmates. Sergeants are authorized to take the steps necessary to gain compliance of prisoners.

The jail uses the “action-response continuum” to decide when force is required, and force should only be used when necessary, Singleton said.

Based on video evidence, the pepper-spraying of Swink appears to be in response to her yelling and screaming while restrained. That level of a response is not permitted under the jail’s directives and highly inappropriate, Singleton said.

In addition to prohibiting the use of force as punishment, the jail manual states that jail staff members must use force as a last resort to controlling inmates.

“This is an easy case — it is absolutely outrageous what that (sergeant) did to Amber Swink,” Singleton said.

The administration of pepper spray should not be punitive and is appropriate only when officers are attempting to bring someone under control and when they are trying to protect themselves or others, said Mike Brickner, senior policy director for the ACLU of Ohio.

The video shows Swink yelling before she is pepper sprayed, but words alone should not result in the use of force, especially when she is completely restrained and poses no threat, Brickner said.

Use-of-force policies exist to recognize that people in jail deserve basic human respect and should not be subjected to cruel and inhumane treatment, Brickner said.

The sheriff’s office’s general orders manual says its directives are for office’s use only and do not apply to criminal or civil proceedings. Violations of the directives only form the basis for internal administrative sanctions, the manual says.