Dayton, OH — “I thought I might die,” said Amber Swink of her harrowing experience being pepper-sprayed while in a seven-point restraint chair in the Montgomery County Jail in Dayton, Ohio, on November 15, 2015.
Video footage of the torturous incident shows Swink so tightly restrained in the chair, she is hardly able to move her head; but that didn’t stop Sgt. Judith L. Sealey from entering the isolation cell and unleashing pepper-spray in the 25-year-old’s face — at near point-blank range — for seemingly no reason but sadistic pleasure.
Swink acknowledged to the Washington Post she had, indeed, been drinking heavily at home that evening when police arrested her, and was still somewhat intoxicated when cameras recorded what happened. But she doesn’t understand what brought on the senseless attack.
“It felt like somebody just crushed up fresh peppers and made me use them as face cream,” Swink told the Post. “It took my breath away. You’re fighting for air. I remember my mouth was filling with a thick slobber, like foaming up — and that was also blocking my airway.”
As the Post described, “In the four-minute clip captured by a camera in the isolation cell, Swink can be seen struggling and coughing; she appears to pass out after her face is covered with a bright orange substance.”
Officers had already coated her face with the thick, orange substance once — and despite being a bit drunk, Swink recalls the jailers laughing outside the sterile isolation cell immediately before Sgt. Sealey’s inexplicable act.
In fact, it takes quite some time for officers to even attend to Swink — and when someone finally enters the cell to douse her eyes with a cruelly sparing amount of water, the air is so thick with pepper spray, he’s forced to vacate the room more than once.
Montgomery County Sheriff Phil Plummer agreed in September that — even though he had yet to view the surveillance footage — pepper-spraying a restrained individual violated departmental policy.
But Plummer characterized Swink’s experience as an “isolated incident.”
“Thirty percent of my jail is people suffering from mental illnesses,” the sheriff told the Post by phone, unintentionally highlighting one of the most critical issues surrounding America’s prison- and police-industrial complex. “There are a lot of situations that the police officers should not be dealing with, but everybody wants to blame the police.”
Police — including officers working in jails and prisons — in the overwhelming majority of departments across the United States do not receive proper or sufficient training to manage encounters with people suffering a wide variety of mental illnesses; and the resulting lack of understanding means those individuals are often subjected to excessive force.
Swink has filed an excessive force lawsuit in U.S. District Court accusing the sheriff’s department of acting in a manner “that amounted to torture,” and alleging law enforcement attempted to hide wrongdoing by destroying evidence.
“We will definitely oppose the lawsuit,” Plummer asserted unsurprisingly. “This isn’t that egregious where she’s walked away with any serious injuries. The officer she spit on should sue her.”
Describing being subjected to torture as ‘not that egregious’ simply because the victim did not sustain permanent injury shows a chilling level of callous cruelty and lack of comprehension Sealey’s actions constituted misconduct.
As the Post pointed out, a National Institute of Justice memo says pepper spray has been used by law enforcement in the U.S. since the 1980s “as a use of force option to subdue and control dangerous, combative, or violent subjects in the field. OC [oleoresin capsicum], with its ability to temporarily incapacitate subjects, has been credited with decreasing injuries among officers and arrestees by reducing the need for more severe force options.”
Swink — with arms, legs, and body restrictively strapped to a restraint chair — obviously posed no threat to jailhouse officers, however, and video proves the motivation to spray her must have been akin to unadulterated sadism.
“You cannot find any training manual that will tell you it is allowable to pepper-spray somebody who is restrained,” Kamran Loghman, a U.S. Naval Academy professor who helped develop pepper spray for law enforcement use, told the Post. “It is used to avoid confrontation or injury, so you don’t escalate to higher levels of confrontation. Pepper spray, therefore, should not be used if the subject is expressing verbal disagreement or anger.”
Ironically, if police deployed pepper spray more often in confrontations with the public — rather than immediately pulling the trigger of a gun — needless deaths could be reduced dramatically.
However, in the incident involving Swink, video proves an absolute lack of cause to deploy pepper spray, despite — as Plummer, Swink, and her attorney agree — her belligerent behavior prior to landing in the restraint chair.
Swink had yelled, banged on a window, kicked at an officer, and generally caused a disturbance after being brought to the Montgomery County Jail — for which officers justifiably used pepper spray the first time, and then strapped her to the restraint chair in the isolation cell.
“Shortly thereafter,” the lawsuit states, “Defendant Sealey went into Plaintiff Amber Swink’s cell with another can of OC spray and intentionally and maliciously sprayed Plaintiff Amber Swink’s face and body with the OC spray until she became unconscious and suffered permanent, serious, and debilitating injuries.”
Plummer told the Post Sealey had been disciplined for the misconduct — meaning she had received a write-up that would remain in her file for six months. Nothing more.
“We don’t tolerate once you’re secured using pepper-spray on you because the threat is neutralized,” the sheriff explained. “That’s the mistake that Sgt. Sealey made.”
Sealey has, in fact, since been promoted to Captain.
Attorney Douglas Brannon, representing Swink, asserted Sealey should have been criminally charged and immediately fired.
“I can’t fathom that the sheriff would even consider keeping this employee in light of the fact that her conduct was intentional, deliberate and abusive and directed towards an individual that was completely unable to protect herself,” he told the Post.
Now, Dayton Police are investigating to decide whether or not criminal charges should be filed against Sealey, who was placed on paid administrative leave last week for the duration of that investigation. On Wednesday, Plummer said,“[Sealey] is not exempt from criminal prosecution, she is not exempt from termination. She is going to be treated like everybody else.”
Swink, who suffered with asthma as a child, said the unnecessary use of pepper spray has brought back some of those breathing difficulties.
“My whole life, I looked up to law enforcement,” Swink told the Post. “They would come into our schools and talked to us and they were supposed to be some of the best people you could trust and call on.
“But now I wonder if there’s really anybody watching out for me and my family.”