The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office says it reviewed a year’s worth of records and added new oversight procedures after a video of a Montgomery County corrections officer pepper-spraying a restrained inmate disappeared from county records.
The incident has led to accusations of theft and cover-up that are part of a lawsuit and ongoing federal investigation.
Records obtained by the I-Team show many more videos of use of force at the Montgomery County jail disappeared than previously reported. It’s unclear how many videos are missing or what happened to them, but sheriff’s office officials say only unofficial copies are missing and that official copies of most videos are not missing.
Those videos are maintained on a hard drive that is not currently accessible because of the federal investigation, according to the sheriff’s office.
One of the missing videos ended up in the hands of a local attorney. That video, widely seen on news websites, shows then-Sgt. Judith Sealey using pepper spray on inmate Amber Swink in November 2015 while Swink was strapped into a restraint chair. In an interview last week, Chief Deputy Rob Streck said his staff reviewed all records from 2015 after the video turned up missing.
That review examined electronic incident reports — including the Swink case — and compared them to official filings. It found fewer than two dozen instances out of thousands of filings in 2015 in which official records were absent, according to Streck. None of those rose to the level of suspicion of the Swink case, he said, characterizing them as innocent mistakes by staff.
“The rate of error for the number of reports we have, I’d say is in the 1 percent range,” added investigator David Parin, who did the review. “Any rate of error is something we are trying to avoid.”
Streck said the sheriff’s office recently hired an administrative sergeant to routinely audit records, “so the ‘he said/she said’ type thing can’t happen.”
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Emails obtained by the I-Team say nearly a year’s worth of videos of use of force by corrections officers at the Montgomery County jail disappeared from jail computers shortly after the Swink incident.
These were not official records required to be kept under agency policy, Parin said, so were not part of his review. But the emails show they were used by jail staff to fulfill requests for videos under public record law.
The missing video files were kept in an internal computer drive used to catalog uses of force. When an officer files a report noting a use of force — such as pepper-spraying an inmate — he or she fills out a form and then copies all videos of the incident to the drive from jail cameras.
Streck said the drive was meant for temporary storage, and policy requires officers to make a hard copy disk of videos of each incident, which is then kept with the use of force report in the sheriff’s office records. In Sealey’s case, neither the use of force report nor the disk can be found.
The I-Team has requested video from other incidents in 2015 under public records law and has received them.
To date the only video evidence of the use of force by Sealey — who was later promoted to captain — surfaced in September 2016 when Swink sued the jail and her attorney posted the video online without saying how he got it.
Montgomery County Sheriff Phil Plummer has said someone stole the video, noting the disappearance of videos from the temporary drive.
He called for a review after he said the November records had disappeared completely.
“To me, that says somebody deleted it and tampered with it,” he said at the time.
Streck said last week that it appeared some — but not all — of the videos prior to November were missing as well.
Swink’s lawsuit alleges the Sealey video was deleted as part of a cover-up.
Emails obtained by the I-Team and verified by multiple people show corrections officers expressing concern that use of force videos prior to mid-December 2015 couldn’t be found.
A Dec. 18, 2015, email from sheriff’s office Sgt. John Eversole to sheriff’s office information technology employee James Fisher asks for help finding the files.
“These files contain evidence which is subject to public records request. It is important to try to recover them,” Eversole wrote. “Unknown what happened. Doubtful they were just deleted due to the size of the files.”
The I-Team requested original copies of the emails from the sheriff’s office. The county prosecutor denied the request claiming they are “confidential law enforcement investigative records.”
Fisher, who now works for the city of Fairborn’s police department, said in an interview the staff never determined what happened to the files.
“I just know from my perspective as a technician, there were some files missing, we got called in trying to recover the files and couldn’t recover the files,” he said. “We took steps to make sure it wouldn’t happen again.”
I-TEAM SPECIAL REPORT