Since May, the Harnett County jail staff has been under the watch of federal authorities, scrutiny brought by a 2011 surveillance video showing detention officers shocking an inmate three times with a Taser, then leaving him to die on the floor of a padded cell.
In August, as civil rights investigators bore down, Harnett detention officers entered the padded cell of another inmate, spraying him with toxic pepper spray before forcing him to the ground, according to jail incident reports. The officers said the inmate was causing a ruckus by banging on the steel door of his cell.
The News & Observer obtained copies of records detailing the accounts of the three detention officers involved in the August incident with Devontay Myles, who was in the jail awaiting charges of robbery with a dangerous weapon. The officers’ reports differ, but each describes Myles being sprayed and either punched or shoved.
None of the officers explain what threat Myles posed to himself or the officers, though they say Myles was trying to come out of his cell after the confrontation. The sheriff’s policy says that force should be used only when the officer feels his safety or the safety of others is in jeopardy.
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“[Myles] started kicking the door, making it difficult to conduct normal business in the booking desk,” Sgt. Daniel Selvy wrote in his report. Selvy said that he sprayed Myles as he opened the cell door because Myles had threatened to spit on officers.
Sheriff Wayne Coats declined an interview request and did not specifically address the incident. He said in a statement that “If certain laws are violated by employees of the Harnett County Sheriff’s Office, appropriate steps will be taken to address any and all areas of concern. We encourage the public to report any suspicion of illegal or unethical conduct by either law enforcement officials or other individuals in Harnett County.”
The incident with Myles occurred on Aug. 2. Cpl. Peter Cipriano, one of the officers involved in the incident, was fired on Aug. 25. Selvy was placed on administrative leave on Aug. 29 and resigned on Sept. 1, according to records provided by the sheriff’s office. A third officer, Cpl. Randy Taylor, remains a detention officer at the jail. According to the incident reports, he did not use force against Myles.
None of the officers involved could be reached for comment.
The N&O has reported allegations of excessive force by deputies and a jailer within the sheriff’s office of Harnett County, a rural community 30 miles south of Raleigh. It published a four-part series in May, which included the death by Taser of inmate Brandon Bethea. Federal officials have been examining whether deputies within the department violated the civil rights of residents, including John Livingston, who was shot and killed at his home by a deputy in November 2015.
Jon Blum, a former police officer who runs a company that trains officers on how to use force, said the incident reports in Myles’ case are perplexing. He could not see what justification the officer had to enter Myles’ cell and use force.
“If force is used as a punitive tool in correction settings, it violates protections against cruel and unusual punishment,” Blum said.
Blum, a Harnett County resident, had offered to assist sheriff’s office leaders with their use-of-force policies and training last year. They met with him, but did not consult him further.
Myles’ encounter with officers is similar in some ways to that of Bethea, who was killed in a padded cell in March 2011.
Both men suffered from bipolar disease. They had both been in and out of jail for years, racking up numerous charges for assaults and robberies. The men were cousins.
Bethea was described by officers as verbally abusive and uncooperative in the hours before his death. Myles had rattled officers by banging on the door of his cell for hours; he said he was trying to get the nurse to bring his medicine.
“Basically, they got the key,” said Myles, who spoke to The N&O a half-dozen times by phone during the last two months. “Anytime they want, they can come in and beat us.”
An agitated inmate
After six months in the Harnett jail waiting for his robbery charges to be brought to court, Myles said he started to feel depressed. On Aug. 2, two detention officers found a sheet hanging from a light in Myles’ cell, according to jail records. They said Myles told them he swallowed two batteries. They wrapped Myles in a restraint and escorted him to a padded cell for suicide watch.
Over the next several hours, Myles said he worried that the nurse had forgotten to bring him the medication he takes to treat his mental illness. He worried he would not sleep that night if he didn’t get his dosage in time.
Myles began to yell. For hours, he said he banged on the steel door of the padded cell.
“I’m not going to lie,” Myles told The N&O. “I was constantly knocking on the door.”
In an incident report, Sgt. Selvy described Myles behavior as “beligerant.” He said Myles yelled through the door of his cell that he would spit on officers.
Selvy, followed by Cpl. Cipriano and Cpl. Taylor, approached Myles’ cell. Selvy opened the steel door and immediately shot Myles with pepper spray, according to the incident report he filed.
Selvy said he stepped inside Myles’ cell because the “the initial burst of [spray] had no effect.” He sprayed again.
They moved toward the back of the cell. Selvy said Myles grabbed his arm, prompting the officer to “use a hammer fist to his back to gain compliance.”
Myles said he remembers coughing and gagging on the spray. His eyes burned, and he struggled to see. Myles said the next thing he remembered, he was on the ground.
“When the officer slammed me, I remember, I went down,” he said in an interview. “I was getting kicked. I just blacked out.”
The incident reports from the three officers describe different moments of their encounter with Myles. Each reported Selvy spraying Myles as he opened the door of the cell.
The three officers also described Myles trying to follow Selvy out of the cell after being sprayed.
Cipriano pushed Myles to the back of the cell, according to his report. Cipriano said that because Myles was still acting aggressively, “inmate was taken to the ground to gain control of the inmate.”
‘I don’t feel safe’
Myles said he gagged on the spray and coughed up blood. He said he waited for roughly a half-hour before officers took him to the shower to wash the spray off his body. The incident reports do not note any delay in getting Myles to the shower.
Myles said he was then taken to solitary confinement, where he said he remained for nearly a month.
Myles said he could barely move his neck. His chest and back were covered in bruises. He said his face broke out in a rash from the pepper spray.
He said he repeatedly asked to see a doctor. When he was taken out of solitary confinement, he filed an official grievance.
The sheriff’s department transferred Myles to a state prison for safekeeping on September 7. He is still awaiting trial.
But, he said, “I don’t feel safe.”
Surveillance cameras roll 24 hours a day in the Harnett County jail’s padded cells and booking area.
On Dec. 13, the N&O requested a copy of the video capturing Myles’ encounter with officers. Officials have not provided it. Myles’ attorney, Jesse Jones, has also requested a copy of the video.
A spokesman from the State Bureau of Investigation said the agency has not been asked to investigate, as is often the case in such incidents. No one has been charged.
Harnett County District Attorney Vernon Stewart declined to comment on the incident.
Locke: 919-829-8927 or @MandyLockeNews