ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. -- Legitimate use of force – or police brutality?
A witness to a recent incident in the St. Johns County Jail claims it was the latter, and her allegations have sparked a deeper investigation.
Tami, a 48-year-old former nursing assistant, spent 10 years working in the Department of Corrections, including on Death Row. "I have seen a lot in my day," she says of her time on the inside, "but never anything like this."
Tami, who asked to be identified only by her first name, was back on the inside this week – this time as an inmate. She spent Monday night in the St. Johns County Jail after being picked up on a misdemeanor warrant. She quickly bonded out, but not before witnessing a harrowing scene.
At the conclusion of first appearances in court Tuesday morning, Tami says a 22-year-old inmate named Steven Beck spoke up and tried to ask Judge Charles Tinlin a question. She says deputies denied his request, noting that court was ending. First appearances are conducted via video in St. Johns County, and deputies shut off the video feed.
Beck was clearly upset by their refusal, Tami says, but he didn't act out. He was also wearing handcuffs and leg shackles, which is why she says the response was so shocking. She claims a corrections officer took Beck to the ground, then forcefully pushed him out the door and began beating him in the hallway outside the courtroom.
"They beat him down to the ground," she told First Coast News. "They were just pounding on him, and he was screaming at the top of his voice that they were killing him. He said, 'You're killing me, you're killing me, please stop, please stop.'"
Tami contends other inmates objected as well.
"They [the inmates] were extremely upset. A couple spoke up quite loudly: 'You're killing him, stop, you're killing him, stop,'" Tami said.
The officer, Deputy David Olson, submitted a Response to Resistance Report as required, but his narrative told a different version of events. The report acknowledges that Beck "was placed on the floor to gain control" and that Olson subsequently "delivered 4-5 knee strikes to gain compliance." But the report says Beck was loud, profane and threatening violence. "Y'all are about to see me get crazy in here," the report says Beck yelled. The officer also says Beck "attempted to twist and pull away from my grasp."
According to Sheriff's spokesperson Cmdr. Chuck Mulligan, based on the report, the level of force used to subdue Beck was appropriate. Pushing or refusing to move constitutes "active resistance" under state law, which Mulligan notes permits officers to "go one level of response higher than what [the inmate is] doing" to counter it.
"If you are pushing against me and I'm pushing against you, we could do that for the next two hours," Mulligan says. "… At some point, I need to do what's called 'changing your channel.' So what we do, is we will escalate our response to bring that to a conclusion as quickly as possible, and that's what the deputy appears to have done in this case."
Tami says her concerns went beyond what she saw as excessive force. She contends that when deputies responded to the altercation, she was left alone, unguarded, in a room of mostly male inmates.
"I was terrified," she says. "There's people in first appearance [court] for little misdemeanors, like I was, but there's also rapists and God knows what else with me in there, and I had no officer in that room. And it scared me."
Mulligan insists that one deputy was in the courtroom at all times, and notes that the jail has not received any formal complaints about the incident – not even from Steven Beck.
"If she wants to file a formal complaint," he says, "we'll have the Internal Affairs office look at it."
But Mulligan said Thursday, based on First Coast News inquiries, jail commanders started looking into the situation. On Friday, Mulligan said Sheriff David Shoar had requested a formal Administrative Inquiry.
Tuesday's incident was one of 23 use-of-force incidents in the jail since January.
(The officer was not permitted to speak to First Coast News. Beck, who was picked up on a misdemeanor warrant out of Volusia County, has since been returned to that jurisdiction. Attempts to contact him and his family were unsuccessful. Other inmate witnesses were not immediately available, since it takes St Johns County three days to process a visitation request.)