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After officer’s ‘brutal’ takedown, Bluffton Police face a civil rights lawsuit

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After officer’s ‘brutal’ takedown, Bluffton Police face a civil rights lawsuit

On a humid afternoon in August 2017, Bluffton Police Officer Cody Kirkman stood by as a firefighter hosed Teddy Ellis’ blood off the pavement under his police cruiser on May River Road. Washed away were the last physical traces of what had taken place minutes before: An arrest that began as a routine traffic stop […]

On a humid afternoon in August 2017, Bluffton Police Officer Cody Kirkman stood by as a firefighter hosed Teddy Ellis’ blood off the pavement under his police cruiser on May River Road.

Washed away were the last physical traces of what had taken place minutes before: An arrest that began as a routine traffic stop for a lapsed vehicle registration and ended with Ellis handcuffed and pinned to the concrete in a growing pool of his own blood.

Now, Ellis and his wife, Teresa, have sued the Bluffton Police Department and three of its officers in federal court, alleging civil rights violations for behavior “so extreme and outrageous that it exceeds all possible bounds of decency and must be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community,” according to the complaint filed Aug. 2, 2019.

Ellis was severely injured, requiring stitches on his chin, losing several teeth and suffering neurological damage as a result of a takedown Kirkman used while attempting to search Ellis, said his lawyer, Arie Bax of Beaufort.

The suit is the second excessive force-related claim to be filed against the department in as many years, the other stemming from Bluffton officer Baker Odom’s arrest of then-Beaufort resident Claraleanna Lockett. That incident — in which Odom broke Lockett’s window with his bare hands during a routine traffic stop — took place just two days after Ellis’ arrest in 2017 and resulted in a $20,000 settlement reached last year.

Bluffton Police spokesperson Capt. Joe Babkiewicz declined to comment on Ellis’ arrest and referred questions to town lawyers, citing the pending litigation.

The body cam of Bluffton Police Officer Amber Swinehamer on Aug. 3, 2017, shows the moments before fellow officer Cody Kirkman, right, picks up and drops Bluffton resident Teddy Ellis on the pavement after an Automatic License Plate Reader alerted Kirkman that Ellis’ vehicle registration was suspended.
The body cam of Bluffton Police Officer Amber Swinehamer on Aug. 3, 2017, shows the moments before fellow officer Cody Kirkman, right, picks up and drops Bluffton resident Teddy Ellis on the pavement after an Automatic License Plate Reader alerted Kirkman that Ellis’ vehicle registration was suspended.

The lawyer representing Bluffton and the three officers, Christy Scott of Walterboro, wrote in an email that “we stand behind the actions of the officer as outlined in the police report,” but did not elaborate further citing “ethical restraints” around the ongoing case.

Police Chief Chris Chapmond has previously told the newspapers he is focused on the present and has mandated de-escalation training for his officers. Ellis’ arrest took place before Chapmond joined the department as chief in August 2018.

The three officers present at Ellis’ arrest and named in the complaint — Kirkman, Amber Swinehamer and Lindsey Gibson — didn’t return requests for comment. Only Kirkman is still with the department.

In a court filing, Bluffton and the officers denied wrongdoing and said Ellis failed to respond to directives from officers, “conducting himself in a hostile, verbally abusive and physically threatening posture.” Video of the traffic stop shows Ellis cursing and loudly demanding to be placed in Kirkman’s car after being handcuffed.

In an interview, Bax called Kirkman’s behavior “brutal,” and said Ellis was profiled as dangerous because he was “a tall black man in a tank top with gym shorts on.”

Teddy Ellis
Teddy Ellis

Automated surveillance system leads to stop

Ellis was not stopped for running a red light or speeding, but because Bluffton’s automatic license plate reader system sent an alert to the officer warning that an approaching car had a suspended registration.

ALPR is a network of two surveillance cameras along S.C. Highway 46 that photographs passing vehicles and stores registration information in a statewide database.

Automatic License Plate Reader cameras are pictured on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020 installed about 14 feet above S.C. 46, S.C. 170 on the Beaufort County side of the Melanie Lowther Memorial Bridge that carries traffic over the New River. The cameras “read” license plates as vehicles leave and enter Beaufort County which are then checked against a database for infractions or stolen vehicles.
Automatic License Plate Reader cameras are pictured on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020 installed about 14 feet above S.C. 46, S.C. 170 on the Beaufort County side of the Melanie Lowther Memorial Bridge that carries traffic over the New River. The cameras “read” license plates as vehicles leave and enter Beaufort County which are then checked against a database for infractions or stolen vehicles.

The ALPR readers scanned an average of about 240,000 vehicles a month through the first five months of 2017, according to a department-wide email obtained through a public records request.

The American Civil Liberties Union has criticized the use of ALPR systems nationwide on the grounds that they are easily abused by law enforcement and chill rights to free speech and expression by tracking an individual’s daily movements. Reporters at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, using ALPR records, documented the precise locations of a car owned by their city’s mayor over the course of a year. One South Carolina lawmaker, Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, has twice introduced bills to tighten restrictions on police use of ALPR, to no avail.

A map that shows the locations for Automatic License Plate Reader cameras in Bluffton, S.C.
A map that shows the locations for Automatic License Plate Reader cameras in Bluffton, S.C.

After Ellis’ silver Chevrolet Impala was flagged by the ALPR system, Kirkman saw it traveling east on May River Road and pulled him over.

Ellis handed Kirkman the car’s registration, but did not have his driver’s license. Kirkman later discovered Ellis’ license was suspended and that the car’s registration had lapsed four days earlier, according to Kirkman’s written report on the arrest. Body camera footage shows Kirkman noting Ellis’ previous suspensions for failure to pay fines and saying he wanted to make the arrest “before he gets squirrelly.”

“He’s going to jail,” said Kirkman to Swinehamer, who had arrived on scene as backup.

Kirkman told Ellis to turn off his car.

He complied.

Kirkman told Ellis to exit the vehicle.

Ellis cursed. “I’m about to go to jail for this bulls—,” he said, but got out of the car.

Ellis faced his car and allowed Kirkman to handcuff him.

“Just put me in the f—— car … I feel like this s— is justified because I’m a black man driving,” Ellis said, confirming with Kirkman that no moving violation had been committed.

“I would beat your … ass if there wasn’t no f—— handcuffs,” he told Kirkman.

“Right now this ain’t a big deal,” Kirkman responded.

The bodycam of Bluffton Police Officer Amber Swinehamer shows fellow officer Cody Kirkman putting handcuffs on Bluffton resident Teddy Ellis on Aug. 3, 2017, after an Automatic License Plate Reader alerted Kirkman that Ellis’ vehicle registration was suspended.
The bodycam of Bluffton Police Officer Amber Swinehamer shows fellow officer Cody Kirkman putting handcuffs on Bluffton resident Teddy Ellis on Aug. 3, 2017, after an Automatic License Plate Reader alerted Kirkman that Ellis’ vehicle registration was suspended.

Search and takedown

The next minute and a half of the arrest are currently being contested in the legal battle. The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette obtained body camera footage and dashcam video from two officers at the scene, which show a verbal altercation leading to the takedown that injured Ellis.

Kirkman wrote in his report that Ellis “attempted to turn around in an effort to stop the search” and “remained physically and verbally resistant” after being cuffed.

Video shows Kirkman loudly demanding that Ellis stay still. “If you don’t stop moving, I’m going to put you on the ground,” he said.

Seth Stoughton, a University of South Carolina law professor and national expert on police use of force, reviewed the footage at the newspapers’ request. He said the search Kirkman attempted to conduct before placing Ellis in his vehicle was important to check for contraband or weapons.

But Stoughton saw little in Ellis’ actions that would prevent this search from taking place. The video indicates Kirkman was able to check the pockets of Ellis’ gym shorts, even as Ellis began to shout, demanding that he be placed in the squad car.

“Frankly, someone can be as verbal as possible,” Stoughton said. “It’s not going to stop the officer from physically conducting a search.”

And, according to Stoughton, what happened next was “not proportionate to the threat” Ellis posed.

After shouting “stop moving” multiple times, Kirkman reached around the 6-foot-4-inch Ellis’ ankles and pulled them backwards, causing him to pitch forward and audibly slam his chin against the pavement.

“Oh no!” yelled Ellis several times, on the ground, as Kirkman continued to demand that he “stop moving!”

According to Stoughton, if Kirkman decided to employ force to facilitate a search, there are safer techniques for lowering someone in handcuffs to the ground, including enlisting the help of the two other officers on scene.

“You ain’t have no business slamming me,” said Ellis, insisting that Kirkman get him up.

Instead, Kirkman followed the takedown with what Ellis’ lawsuit describes as a “violent knee” to his back, keeping Ellis pinned down face first for almost nine minutes as blood pooled underneath him.

“I can’t get you up until you calm down because you’re going to fight,” Kirkman told Ellis.

Kirkman wrote in his report that, while on the ground, Ellis “continued yelling obscenities towards me” and “informed me that he was going to kill me and sue the police department.”

In the videos, Ellis yells threats full of vulgarities, repeatedly says he will have Kirkman fired, and demands that the officers call an ambulance because he’s still bleeding. “I need your badge number, officer,” he says. But Ellis does not explicitly threaten Kirkman’s life in any of the almost two hours of footage the newspapers reviewed, which includes the arrest and its aftermath, as well as footage of Ellis at Coastal Carolina Hospital.

The position Kirkman had Ellis in presents a life-threatening risk of restraint asphyxia, when a body position prevents adequate breathing, said Stoughton.

“You did this knowing this was concrete, right?” Ellis asks Kirkman. “Knowing I was going to go face first?”

Ellis was allowed to roll over and sit up only when EMS arrived.

Treated for ‘minor injuries’; imprisoned

Ellis was eventually transported to the hospital, where he “received a small amount of stitches in his chin,” Kirkman wrote. The Bluffton officer said a doctor told him that Ellis sustained no further injury, a point Bax disputes.

Bax said Ellis lost teeth as a result of the incident, and a dentist priced a full dental reconstruction at approximately $30,000, although he said that figure may not account for all the damage done. In addition, he suffered “neurological damage” from an undiagnosed concussion that hasn’t been treated further because Ellis is uninsured, said Bax.

Police reports in incidents like Ellis’ arrest “are often a way for officers to try to whitewash and rewrite history,” Bax said about the discrepancies between Ellis’ and Kirkman’s accounts of the events.

After being treated at the hospital, Ellis was booked into the Beaufort County Detention Center on four charges, including resisting arrest, second offense driving under suspension, failure to return license plate and registration upon loss of insurance and an uninsured motor vehicle fee violation.

The resisting arrest charge was dismissed five months later by the 14th Circuit Solicitor’s Office because the “State was unable to prove each element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt,” according to a dismissal form filed in Beaufort County General Sessions Court.

At an an initial Bluffton Municipal Court date for the three other charges, Ellis provided proof that his license had been reinstated, and Kirkman told him charges would be dropped, Ellis said through his lawyer. He was later found guilty when he didn’t appear for a court date, which Ellis says he wasn’t notified about.

Ellis blamed for own injuries

Per department policy in any use-of-force incident, Bluffton officials reviewed the arrest. They found Kirkman used “a reasonable amount of force necessary to conduct a proper search,” according to an internal document.

Kirkman faced no disciplinary action and is still with the department. He did not return two interview requests sent to his town email address.

Personnel documents from 2018 show one other use-of-force incident in Kirkman’s file, where he stopped a man who attempted to run away from him during an arrest for marijuana possession. He was able to “quickly grab (the man) and take him to the ground,” according to a review of the incident, which found Kirkman’s use of force appropriate.

Personnel documents provided by the Wayne County, Indiana, Sheriff’s Office, where Kirkman worked for six years before moving to Beaufort County, show no disciplinary action and several commendations. Files obtained from the Beaufort County Detention Center, which employed him as a corrections officer for less than a year, include no disciplinary records.

Bluffton Police’s review of Ellis’ arrest did fault Gibson and Swinehamer, who “did not prevent (Ellis) from hurting himself.” They were each given counseling reports, the lowest level of officer discipline, according to internal documents.

Swinehamer did not respond to two Facebook messages requesting comment after two numbers listed for her were out of service when called, and Gibson did not return two voicemails left at a phone number listed as hers on a professional law enforcement association website.

Ellis’ suit claims the department did not ensure “adequate training and supervision” of its officers. (In their response to the complaint, Bluffton and the officers deny those allegations.)

Bax said he and Ellis are concerned with the lack of discipline following the arrest, which they see as a pattern within the Bluffton Police. The newspapers have previously reported on multiple Bluffton arrests that have led to lawsuits or, in at least one case, an officer resigning before disciplinary action could be taken.

Some of those arrests include:

Officer Baker Odom broke the driver’s side window of Claraleanna Lockett’s car with his bare hands during a 2017 traffic stop. A lawsuit stemming from the arrest was filed in September 2018 and later settled. Less than two years later, Odom broke the window of another car after a pursuit. No lawsuit was filed in that case, and officials did not fault Odom for his use of force.

Officer Jonathan Bates resigned from the department in 2018 after an internal investigation. He had previously been investigated for his use of force at least three times.

A 2018 lawsuit, which was later settled, alleged Officer George Wetzel wrongly arrested Chelsea Lynn Howard during a 2015 traffic stop.

Johnnie Bryant sued the department in 2017 after he was arrested in 2014 for pointing and presenting a firearm. The lawsuit alleged there was no probable cause for arrest and that excessive force and unlawful seizure were used. A judge later ruled in Bluffton’s favor.

As for Ellis’ suit, Bax said he and his client share the same position: “If we don’t stand up when these things happen and make the public aware,” he said, “then it just keeps happening.”

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