The Department of Juvenile Justice requires that officers never enter a youth’s room without another staffer present. The rooms aren’t monitored by surveillance cameras, and the policy is partly a precaution against abuse.
But on Dec. 15, 2015, an officer at the Hillsborough West Regional Juvenile Detention Center told a boy he wanted to “show him something,” privately, inside his room. The officer seemed to be “mad” at the youth, the detainee said, because the teen refused to remove his boxer shorts before showering, and the two had a disagreement over the use of deodorant, an inspector general report said.
Though the two had exchanged curse words moments earlier, the boy appeared to be neither combative nor aggressive, the IG report said.
Inside his room in Bravo module, the 16-year-old said, the officer “beat him up, pinned him to the ground and choked him” atop a concrete slab, according to a DJJ report. As the youth struggled to free himself, the officer squeezed his Adam’s apple. The victim’s nose began to bleed, and the officer balled his fist as if to strike him, the boy said.
Another officer came along and coaxed the choker to disengage. “You know he’s going to rat,” the colleague said, according to the youth’s account in the IG report.
The officer who was doing the throttling said he “did not care what happened,” the boy said.
In a statement to an inspector, a youth who shared the room said he saw the officer pin his roommate down on the concrete, apply all of his body weight on top of him, and then apply pressure on the youth’s neck. The target of the officer’s anger “told [the officer] that he could not breathe, but [the officer] said he did not care,” the roommate said.
The inspector general report said that when the victim reported the incident, he was “crying hysterically” and had dried blood on his face.
The IG confirmed that the takedown was unnecessary. The man resigned. The improper force complaint was the 14th against him since his hiring in 2012 — meaning he’d been the target of an improper force complaint, on average, more than four times each year.
Four of the complaints had been substantiated, and a fifth was still under investigation at the time of the restraint.
When the Dec. 15, 2015, takedown occurred, the officer had just returned from a three-day suspension for a use of force.
A Department of Children & Families child abuse investigator who reviewed the incident expressed concerns to DJJ that the officer had kept his job for years despite his dismal history.
Tampa police looked at the surveillance video from the hallway and said it didn’t support the accounts of the officer or his supervisor. But a 25-page police report said prosecutors declined to file criminal charges.
This narrative is part of Tales from the Front, a collection of short stories about Florida's juvenile justice system. The Miami Herald investigated the state's youth corrections system following the 2015 beating death of a Miami-Dade detainee. Read the full "Fight Club" investigative series here.