Missing paperwork raises questions about pepper spray probe

Pepper spray has been used more than 170 times in past two years on inmates at county jail

A Montgomery County Jail sergeant was not disciplined for pepper spraying a restrained inmate in the face in November 2015, but she received a warning four months later for not completing required paperwork, according to county records obtained by this newspaper.

Sheriff Phil Plummer has since said the incident — which spurred a lawsuit by the inmate, Amber Swink — violated department policy, but records show then-Sgt. Judith Sealey’s supervisors didn’t dole out any punishment.

Capt. Charles Crosby wrote to Swink’s attorney in July that he saw the use of force report with a video and other records attached, “when it was completed.” But Sealey was reprimanded in March for not completing the form.

Some of those records have since disappeared from the sheriff’s office; videos from the entire month of November have been wiped out. The lawsuit alleges a cover-up. Plummer says the records were “stolen” and pledged an investigation.

Plummer has said Sealey — promoted early in 2016 to become the office's first black female captain — was reprimanded for the incident, but said the discipline was for not filing paperwork.

“If I would have seen the video, it would have been handled differently,” said Plummer, who said Sealey’s actions are being investigated. “I would have said, ‘Hey, this is a problem.’ ”

Plummer didn’t defend Sealey’s apparent violation of policy, but did say: “I don’t think it’s that excessive. I mean, (Swink) could have been Tased. Yeah, (Sealey) got promoted. I mean, it ain’t like she committed a felony.”

Swink’s attorney, Doug Brannon, disagreed with Plummer’s stance.

"I'm not sure what's taking them so long when there's a clear assault on the inmate that occurred that's obvious to everybody except the command staff over there," said Brannon, who has a copy of the pepper spraying video that Plummer's office said it no longer does.

“It’s clearly criminal. It’s an assault on an inmate. It’s a felony.”

Missing records

An incident like the pepper spraying of Swink should generate documentation such as a use of force report, a CD video of the incident, and a log showing inmates being checked on every 10 minutes when restrained in a seven-point harness.

The sheriff described the usual chain of custody of that information:

“The sergeant downloads the video when there’s use of force, sends it to the captain with those reports,” Plummer said. “The captain will look at them, say we’ve got an issue with this, we’re going to investigate this.

“So, he’ll send it over across the street, right across the street (the county jail is across the street from the sheriff’s department), to the major to look at. The major will get with the chief and then we’re good to see that it’s looked into. The problem we’re seeing now, the packet didn’t make it over here.

“It’s disappeared from the jail to here.”

One of the absent records is the use of force report that Sealey was required to fill out at the time of the incident but allegedly did not. This is what led to her “letter of caution” reprimand in March from Maj. Scott Landis.

“Here’s the discrepancy,” Plummer said last month. “(Sealey) says she did it. Chuck (Crosby) said he sent it over here.”

Plummer declined to speak further about the incident on the advice of the office’s attorneys and wouldn’t say whether Landis knew Crosby and Sealey said the report was written.

“It’s as ridiculous as it sounds,” Brannon said. “That’s it. That’s my comment.”

As to how the issue even came up this spring, Chief Deputy Rob Streck said, “Sergeants started talking about Judy doing use of force and didn’t file a report.”

The lawsuit alleges Sealey never filled out a use of force report, and was never required to fill it out in order to keep the incident from becoming public.

“It was ultimately determined by the defendants that the videotape of defendant Sealey spraying plaintiff Amber Swink with (pepper) spray while she was restrained in the restraint chair should be intentionally destroyed, along with other electronic data and reports to prevent probable civil litigation, criminal investigation and protect a black female being promoted to the command staff from discipline and/or termination,” the lawsuit alleges.

The suit alleges Sealey’s promotion was orchestrated by Plummer and the Dayton Unit NAACP as “reparations” for a controversy in which sheriff’s office internal affairs employees were found to have exchanged racist text messages.

Use of force

County records that are available show that jailers routinely use pepper spray on unruly inmates. The spray was used 90 times at the jail in 2015 and 83 times this year, through Sept. 19.

Court records show the sheriff’s office faces other accusations of excessive use of force. The Swink lawsuit is one of three currently pending against the office over treatment of inmates at the jail.

Sealey has reported use of force six times since the beginning of 2015, often for using pepper spray to gain compliance from an unruly prisoner.

While most of the incidents occurred at the jail, Sealey’s most recent use of force was not. In May, Capt. Sealey was one of several officers who responded to an alleged bomb threat at the Montgomery County Job Center. A woman named Jasmine Ferrell approached the building and became irate when told it was closed.

Ferrell started to leave and put in cellphone earplugs when Sealey approached her, according to Sealey’s report, and Sealey stopped her and asked for her name. Ferrell allegedly became profane with Sealey, who arrested her for disorderly conduct.

Sealey’s report says Ferrell struggled as she was put in the back of a transport van, kicking the vehicle’s doors and windows, and a sergeant sprayed her three times before she calmed down. The report says Ferrell continued to kick windows and doors and was uncooperative when they arrived at the jail. She was placed in a restraint chair, treated for the spray and “given a medical sedative to calm her down.”

Use of force reports by Sealey and others show pepper spray is routinely used to subdue an inmate before he or she is strapped to a restraint chair.

On Jan. 22, Sealey was one of several corrections officers who responded when a man named Joshua Mullins reportedly became combative while he was being booked. Mullins took a fighting stance, reports say, so deputy Michael Beach shot him in the face with peppery spray and took him to the ground. Beach then sprayed Mullins in the face again before putting him in handcuffs.

Responding officers have differing recollections of what happened next.

Beach wrote: “At this time, Sgt. Sealey arrived and ordered inmate Mullins to be placed into the emergency restraint chair.”

Sealey wrote that Beach had sprayed Mullins three times and the inmate was still refusing to adhere to commands while being placed in the restraint chair, and she sprayed him two more times. None of the other officers mentioned Sealey using the spray.

In other instances, Sealey used pepper spray to incapacitate inmates in their cells prior to placing them in restraint chairs.

On Jan. 19, inmate Jordan Dixon reportedly was banging and kicking the glass window of his cell for more than two hours and ignored orders to stop.

“I had correction officer (Gerald) Shadoan open the food port and I ask (sic) inmate Jordan to come over to the food port,” Sealey wrote. “Inmate Jordan bent down as asked to do and I administered three shots of O/C (pepper) spray.”

Dixon was then placed in the restraint chair “without incident,” the report says.

On Dec. 31, inmate James Leis reportedly was drunk and yelling and began “to bang on the window of his cell and continued to curse out the jail staff,” Sealey wrote in her report.

Officers say he ignored several requests to calm down before Sealey warned him he would be sprayed.

“Leis continued to bang after my warning,” she wrote. “(A corrections officer) opened the food port and I gave commands for Leis to place his face up to the food port. Leis did so and I administered two bursts of OC spray to his facial area.”

Leis was then placed in a restraint chair and a medic applied water to his face.

Paperwork documenting the five times Sealey reported using pepper spray on an inmate in the past 21 months were filed between Dec. 31, 2015 and Jan. 22, 2016. She was promoted to captain in February.

A sheriff’s office Inspectional Services Unit compiles use of force statistics quarterly and generates a report circulated to the sheriff, the training center sergeant and all employees with the rank of lieutenant and above. But the November 2015 incident involving Swink was not on the quarterly report because her use of force report wasn’t filed.

Awards, reprimands

Sealey’s pay increased from $36.93 per hour to $42.95 per hour when she became a captain, according to her personnel record.

Her work evaluations are mostly positive going back to the mid 1990s, including a certificate of recognition for her actions during a 2015 industrial fire in Harrison Twp. They also say that she is “very community oriented” and involved in township schools.

On Feb. 14, 2014, she was given a certificate of recognition for apprehending an armed robbery suspect who robbed a Radio Shack.

Her file also includes other reprimands and she previously was criticized for not filling out paperwork correctly.

On Feb. 23, 2011, Sealey received a letter of caution for arresting a suspect for a first-degree misdemeanor of carrying a concealed weapon, when supervisors wrote that it should have been a fourth-degree felony. That allowed the suspect to post bond when he should have remained incarcerated, according to her records.

In 2007 and 2011, she was told to “do a better job of submitting error free work” in reports. In late 2008, she received an employee performance improvement plan and letter of caution “for being discourteous to a citizen.”

A review of her 2003 performance said she was briefly demoted from sergeant to deputy and lost three days of paid time off in lieu of a suspension without pay for inadequately handling an investigation of an inmate who threatened to escape from jail and kill a corrections officer with a large piece of pipe.

A job evaluation indicated that in August 2003 Sealey “failed to provide inadequate guidance and supervision to corrections officers, which resulted in a situation where prisoners may have engaged in consensual sexual activity.”

Plummer has called Sealey one of his best employees and said there was no way her actions against Swink would lead to Sealey’s dismissal.


This news organization reviewed hundreds of pages of documents, made several public records requests and will continue to report on developments involving the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office.

About the Authors