DJJ staffer body-slams, slugs a skinny 14-year-old
Broward County prosecutors have ruled that a former detention center officer was justified when he slugged a 14-year-old boy in the face — breaking the teen's nose in two places — because the juvenile was aggressive with staff and causing a disturbance in the county's long-troubled lockup.
Former lockup officer Darell Bryant will not face charges as a result of the incident, which occurred on Feb. 12, 2017. In a "close-out" memo signed earlier this month, prosecutor Christopher Killoran with the Broward State Attorney's Office said that Bryant "was justified in his use of force and his actions that day."
Fourteen-year-old Andrew Ostrovsky was sent to the Broward Regional Juvenile Detention Center after being charged with joyriding in his father's Dodge van in January 2017. Records show he was five feet, six inches tall and weighed 120 pounds.
Bryant told a Fort Lauderdale police detective the encounter began when Andrew attempted to fight another juvenile detainee, and then became "combative" with staff members who tried to intervene. Andrew, the report said, failed to comply when officers told him to stand against a wall in the dining hall and "calm down."
Bryant said Andrew punched him. The report said Bryant then "redirected" Andrew to the ground.
A grainy video of the incident, published as part of a Miami Herald series on abuses in the Florida juvenile justice system, shows Bryant grab the teen by his arm and then toss him to the floor on his back. Bryant said the youth continued to "resist" the officer, and that is when Bryant "punched [Andrew] in the face."
"According to Bryant," the report said, "the single punch was delivered in order to gain compliance from [Andrew], and was 'reasonable and necessary due to the aggression of the youth.' "
Prosecutors concluded that Bryant was permitted to punch the teen under Florida law.
"Based upon Bryant being an authority figure at the facility whose mandate is to control the juvenile detainees, when certain situations arise, for instance when one detainee is attempting to attack another, an employee must utilize force to gain compliance," the memo said.
There is no record of prosecutors having interviewed Andrew, and the close-out memo said the State Attorney's Office was unable to discuss its findings with Andrew's father, Uri Ostrovsky, who adopted the boy from foster care in Maine.
Andrew told investigators with the Department of Juvenile Justice in June 2017 that he had complained to Bryant that another teen "kept talking junk to him" at the lockup — and Bryant suggested Andrew "hit [the] youth when no one is looking."
Andrew was one of several detained or incarcerated youths who told investigators, their parents or the Herald that officers incited teens to fight each other. Often, the youths said, teens would be offered honey buns, hamburgers or other treats as a reward for attacking another youth, records showed. The beatings that followed often were called "honey-bunnings." Andrew's claims, however, never were evaluated in DJJ's 10-page inspector general report on the incident, and Andrew never is quoted by prosecutors in the April close-out memo.
DJJ concluded Bryant's actions were a case of "excessive" force and Bryant resigned his position. The agency's report on the incident differed in significant respects from that of the State Attorney's Office. Reviewing the same video, DJJ investigators concluded that Bryant "slammed youth into the wall" and then was seen "violently throwing the youth to the floor...Bryant was then observed hitting youth with a closed fist while he was on the ground."
DJJ administrators wanted to make clear that, even though prosecutors condoned Bryant's actions, the agency emphatically does not.
“The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice has approved physical interventions to deescalate crisis situations in our facilities and programs. These interventions do not allow for the physical assault of youth to gain compliance," said DJJ Secretary Christina K. Daly. "While we recognize the state attorney has discretion in determining whether to proceed with criminal charges, DJJ does not condone nor tolerate this type of behavior.”
Gordon Weekes, Broward County's chief assistant public defender — and the head of the office's juvenile court division at the time his office represented Andrew in court — called the memo "an incredible example of revisionist history" and "very, very loose with the facts."
"The message this sends to children at the facility — and the message it sends to staffers and guards at the facility — is that we will protect officers who cross the line, hurt children and beat children up, even when these acts are captured on video," Weekes said.
Andrew, Weekes said, appears to be "defenseless" on the ground when Bryant, who is on top of him, slugs him. "He has him subdued. He has him controlled. But he still takes the next step and punches him in the nose. He let everyone know that you don't mess with us, or this is what we are going to do to you. This is how we will take care of you if you don't fall in line."
"This guard beat him into submission, and the state attorney agreed with that," Weekes added.
An expert in juvenile justice policy and research said that prosecutors' justification for declining to press charges suggests an office-wide bias in favor of officers. "The memorandum from the state attorney uses language revealing the intent of the office, which is to minimize the violent nature of the attack," said Jeffrey Butts, who is director of the Research and Evaluation Center at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
"The youth is described as "aggressive" while the video would only support words like "defiant" and "disrespectful." The staff member is described as "redirecting" the youth "to the ground," which is a dismissive euphemism for body-slamming a teenager onto a tile floor."
Butts added: "The behavior of staff toward youth suggests an atmosphere of pervasive violence in the facility, which the state is choosing to ignore. The question is why?"
Constance Simmons, a spokeswoman for State Attorney Mike Satz, said the office successfully prosecuted DJJ employees twice within the last two years for mistreating detainees. One admitted to abusing a juvenile and was sentenced to six months probation, along with a 13-week anger management program. The other pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor battery and also was ordered to undergo anger management training.
"We have aggressively prosecuted DJJ employees when the evidence was sufficient to charge," Simmons said.
Andrew's father, Uri Ostrovsky, questioned how prosecutors could have evaluated the incident fairly without interviewing him or his son. "They never interviewed me," Ostrovsky said. "They never interviewed him. Never."
"It's wrong," Ostrovsky said. "They are trying to cover it up. I am mad. I am really mad."
"They gave permission to abuse children," he added.
The State Attorney's Office said a Fort Lauderdale detective did obtain a sworn statement from Andrew as part of the department's investigation, and the close-out memo said prosecutors had tried repeatedly to reach Ostrovsky to discuss their findings. Ostrovsky, the memo said, did not return their calls.