I-Team: What happens when guards use excessive force at the Hamilton County Justice Center?

The WCPO I-Team spent weeks reviewing thousands of documents from the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office, including personnel files, disciplinary records and internal investigations.

We also obtained security footage showing what sometimes happens inside the county jail, away from the public's view.

Experts say the findings raise questions about whether the sheriff hands out enough punishment when corrections officers mistreat inmates.

HAMILTON COUNTY, Ohio -- Eight months ago, a 61-year-old man was at the Hamilton County Justice Center on a theft charge.

According to court records, the man took about $120 in supplies from Home Depot near Ridge Road. He was upset his PayPal order wasn't approved, the records state. He was arrested the next day, on Aug. 20.

 

At the jail, a nurse interviewed the man before he could go into a cell. The interview is a normal part of the intake process, and the man declined any medical treatment.

According to an internal investigation report, the man was "emotionally upset, belligerent and wanted to use the phone." Corrections Officer Jason Mize ordered him to get up and walk to a holding cell to calm down, the report said. But after the man stood up, he wouldn't walk to the cell, so Mize grabbed his arm.

The man pulled away, and Mize dropped his paperwork. The investigation found Mize pushed the man toward the cell; the man resisted "because he had an unknown injury to his low extremities and was unsteady on his feet," the report said.

Mize then shoved him head-first into the holding cell, the report said. The man hit a concrete half-wall. The report said he left the jail with a bleeding head and broken hip.

 

The internal investigation found Mize used excessive force; the case was so serious, it was referred to the Hamilton County Prosecutor's Office for possible charges. According to Hamilton County Sheriff's Office records, prosecutors declined to present the case to a grand jury. It was Mize's fourth use-of-force violation since the sheriff's office hired him in August 2007.

The I-Team scoured 2,000 documents from the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office to determine what consequences corrections officers face when they use excessive force, especially in cases where the victim was injured.

Sheriff Jim Neil has disciplined 14 current corrections officers for violating his use-of-force policy in the jail since he took office in 2013.

Four of them were suspended. Three officers received written reprimands.

Seven officers got counseling letters, the lowest level of discipline.

All of the officers declined to comment. Steve Lazarus, an attorney for the officers' union, would not discuss any specific cases.

Neil declined repeated requests for an on-camera interview, providing a brief statement through spokesman Mike Robison:

We take all disciplinary matters very seriously. We follow our rules and regulations, policies and procedures, as well as the contracts of the employee bargaining units. After vetting each situation and considering all factors we feel we reach the appropriate level of discipline.

Al Gerhardstein, a well-known civil rights attorney in Cincinnati, said Neil's penalties are too lax. And, he said, it could lead to bigger problems.

"The message may be it's worth the risk, and that's not a good message," Gerhardstein said.

Gerhardstein is representing a widow suing the sheriff and several officers for the death of a man who died after he was stunned repeatedly with a Taser in 2013. The court determined the officers did not use excessive force in the incident. The man's widow has appealed.

Expert: 'I don't think they've lived up to their responsibility'

Investigators raised questions about Mize's honesty in his most recent case.

After he shoved the man into the holding cell, he looked on for a moment; the internal investigation report said Mize then slammed the door so hard it didn't latch closed like it should.

According to the report, Mize told a sergeant he "had to toss someone into the cell," but that he didn't use force and the inmate wasn't injured.

Once the man cried out for help, the nurse who'd been talking with him called for a life squad. She remembered telling a co-worker, "I hope he's not dead."

A supervisor told Mize to start filling out paperwork on his use for force, the report said.

Christine Cole is vice president and executive director of the Crime and Justice Institute, which provides nonpartisan policy analysis, consulting and research on public safety. Cole is a national expert on best practices for police; she has co-authored landmark studies of the Department of Justice Consent Agreement with the Los Angeles Police Department, as well as the police response to the Boston Marathon bombing.

 

Cole reviewed hundreds of pages of personnel files, discipline records and sections of internal affairs investigations the I-Team obtained from the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office.

She also viewed the security video footage of Mize shoving the man.

"It looks as if it's a pretty egregious use of force case," Cole said.

The I-Team reviewed more than 500 pages of documents about Jason Mize. A former inmate also filed a federal lawsuit against Mize and other officers in 2010, for an incident at the jail in January 2008. At that point, Mize had been working for the sheriff's office for just five months; he was still on probation. There is no record of the incident in his personnel file.

Mize was the first-listed officer in the lawsuit; the sheriff's office paid out a monetary settlement.

After a year on the job, Mize got his first performance review in July 2008. Sgt. Brad Buchanan wrote:

Deputy Mize has the potential to be a good officer, but he is lacking the communications skills needed for this job. I would like to see him become more verbal with the inmates. Deputy Mize does work well with other officers and is improving on his knowledge on how the units are to be ran. I believe that in time, he will become a good officer.

A few months later, in October 2008, the sheriff's office determined Mize was "too aggressive" when he punched an inmate in the face.

Former Sheriff Simon Leis laid him off that Christmas, citing the failure of a tax levy. He hired Mize back about two years later, in March 2011.

Three months after he returned, Mize was involved in another use of force review. It was the first of seven incidents involving use of force during his first year back on the job.

In March 2012, an internal investigation found Mize violated policy in one of those cases. He received another counseling letter. Leis said he had no recollection of incidents involving Mize.

"The agency has a responsibility to deal with these things in a consistent, predictable, timely fashion, and I don't think they've lived up to their responsibility," Cole said.

In March 2013, two months after Jim Neil became sheriff, Mize was under investigation again.

"I think it has a direct impact on public safety as well as officer safety." - Christine Cole

The sheriff's office found Mize hit an inmate with six to seven knee strikes -- including several to his head. The inmate was injured.

An internal investigation determined Mize was "reckless and negligent." He was suspended for three days. The sheriff's office called it "progressive discipline."

"It certainly is concerning that somebody with that pattern of behavior is allowed to continue to act in the capacity as a deputy in a correctional facility, where people are at their most vulnerable in many ways," Cole said.

Law enforcement officers must view use of force as serious, Cole said. They need to report it when it happens, she said, and to help people who get hurt.

"Police officers and corrections officers need to behave in a way that is with integrity, and I think it has a direct impact on public safety as well as officer safety," Cole said.

In the most recent case, the man had been injured so severely the sheriff's office sent Mize's case to the Criminal Investigation Section. Just a few months ago, in December, the Hamilton County Prosecutor's Office declined to present the case to a grand jury, even though the man wanted charges filed.

Investigators found Mize changed his story about what happened, which wasn't consistent with what video footage showed. The sheriff's office found he used excessive force and failed to uphold standards of personal conduct, citing regulations about honesty.

Mize's personnel file contains no documentation of discipline taken against him for his most recent use of excessive force. He resigned from the sheriff's office Feb. 25.

A court ultimately acquitted the man of a theft charge.

Which cases get lowest level of discipline?

On Jan. 2, 2016, an inmate in the intake area threw his arm back in the direction of another corrections officer. After officers had him under control, Corrections Officer Randal Spence punched him in the face.

An internal investigation determined it was excessive force. Spence received a counseling letter, the lowest level of discipline.

On Sept. 15, 2016, Sgt. Melissa Kilday grabbed the throat of a "boisterous young woman" three times as officers tried to remove the woman's earrings.

A report about the incident notes "physical manipulations of/around someone's throat are a dangerous maneuver and not taught through our Corrections Academy." Kilday hadn't gone through that training, the report said.

Still, Kilday failed to report her use of force, one that supervisors said was unnecessary.

She, too, received a counseling letter.

Former inmate: Jail staff never told me officer punched me

Scott Hudgins is not a large man.

Now 47 years old, Hudgins weighs about 125 pounds. He was drunk and unsteady on his feet when a Cleves police officer arrested him more than two years ago for disorderly conduct.

The officer took Hudgins to the Hamilton County Justice Center for booking. The charge was a fourth-degree misdemeanor.

A security camera captured what happened inside. At 2:47 a.m., while Hudgins was being searched before going to a cell, corrections officers jumped on him after he handed one of them a sock. He'd been ordered to do so.

One officer slapped him; moments later, Corrections Officer Sanford Speight punched Hudgins in the face.

 

Hudgins said he has no memory of officers hitting him.

"The next thing I know, I woke up on a bench, you know, in the Justice Center," he said.

An internal investigation reported Hudgins wasn't injured. And he said nobody at the jail told him Speight had punched him, either.

The first time he ever knew what really happened, he said, is when the I-Team showed him the footage.

"I said, 'What happened to me last night?' 'Nothing. You was mean last night to us.' That's all they said."

Neil ordered a level 4 suspension for Speight.

According to the internal investigation report obtained by the I-Team, the first hit to Hudgins' face was justified. But investigators found other corrections officers had Hudgins under control when Speight punched him. "Mr. Hudgins' arms were being held down and he was against the wall," their report said.

The investigation also found Speight grabbed Hudgins' head and manipulated it so that he had a clear shot to punch Hudgins in the face. The Hamilton County Sheriff's Office, which runs the jail, suspended Speight for 15 days for using excessive force.

"There was no need for you to strike Mr. Hudgins," the report said.

Neil and other supervisors approved Speight's request to use paid time off for his suspension.

Discipline wasn't immediate: The sheriff's office reprimanded Speight for the incident months later, in May 2015. The final order suspending him without pay came down later that year, in August. Specifically, the sheriff's office found he was guilty of conduct unbecoming a deputy sheriff.

Neil agreed to let Speight use accrued paid leave to cover part or all of his 15-day suspension, taken over four work weeks in September and October.

The sheriff's office provided a timesheet for the dates Speight was scheduled for his suspension. That record indicates he didn't end up using paid leave time, but instead was unpaid those days.