FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Broward County sheriff's correctional deputies battered and bruised Audra West while she was held in jail last year. The question is: was the beating necessary to restrain West or was it handed out by a deputy who wanted to teach her a lesson?
West, a tourist from Texas, admits she cursed at Deputy Kristin Connelly about 10 hours after she was arrested on disorderly conduct and resisting arrest charges at the Elbo Room on Fort Lauderdale Beach, where she had too much to drink.
West said she began menstruating while wearing nothing but her jail jumpsuit and asked for a tampon. When Connelly told her to ask nicely, West did, but Connelly still refused (the jail doesn't give out tampons, only sanitary pads). That's when West told Connelly, "(expletive) you."
A newly-released video shows what happened next. Connelly, standing behind a desk, begins putting on latex gloves and approaches West. Deputy Henry Lawrence tries to block Connelly from getting to West. A witness also seen in the video, an inmate who spoke with Local 10 on condition her name not be used, testified that Lawrence told his fellow deputy, "Don't do it, don't do it." But Connelly gets past Lawrence and the moment she snaps on the second glove, she snatches West from her chair and begins to wrench her across the room.
"She grabbed the girl and starting swinging her back and forth," said the witness. "I'm sitting there and I'm just in shock."
"Did (West) do anything physically to provoke this?" Local 10 News investigative reporter Bob Norman asked her.
"No, nothing," the witness said.
After she is thrown across the room, West turns back to Connelly and fights back, a move West's attorney, Gary Kollin, said was instinct.
"It's only human nature to defend herself," Kollin said.
Connelly and Lawrence push West onto a desk and then onto the floor, where Connelly controls her and pushes West into a small changing/strip search room. Deputies Joyce Johnson and Dorothy Jenkins immediately follow her inside the room, which is not equipped with a video camera, and the door is closed. West is escorted out by Connelly and Johnson about 3 1/2 minutes later. West suffers the brunt of her injuries -- a badly blackened eye and bruises about her body -- while inside the room.
"I was on the floor on my stomach and (Connelly) punched me on this side of the face," said West. "And I was being kicked and stepped on from behind, and she was punching me in the face. She punched me in the eye several times."
The internal affairs investigative file that the Broward Sheriff's Office released to West's attorney indicates that the only report initially filed on the incident by deputies was an "inmate disciplinary report," done by Johnson for West, who complained of being attacked by Connelly and the other deputies. In it, Johnson wrote that West refused to enter the dressing room to change into a different-colored North Broward Detention Facility uniform and was verbally disruptive.
"When Deputy Connelly attempted to escort West, she attacked Connelly," wrote Johnson.
The file indicates that Connelly wrote nothing about the incident. Six days later, West filed an internal affairs complaint against Connelly and the other deputies, and the BSO began an investigation. The following day, Connelly filed a probable cause affidavit filing criminal charges against West, alleging she had assaulted her and resisted arrest. She alleged suffered a facial injury and skinned knees in the altercation, injuries she failed to report at the time.
After reviewing the case, assistant state attorney Mark Horn declined to officially file the case against West.
"This attorney has viewed photos of the defendant and the video supplied by internal affairs," wrote Horn in his report. "In viewing the video, I did not see where Audra West presented a physical threat to the deputy before being forcefully dragged out of her chair into a room with four other deputies, where Audra West was allegedly beaten."
In the affidavit, Connelly recounted West cursing and requesting a tampon.
"I informed inmate West that she could not have a tampon, but I could get her a sanitary pad, and she stated '(expletive) you,'" Connelly wrote.
Connelly wrote that she ordered West to go into the dressing room to change uniforms and wrote that West "crossed her legs in defiance."
"I stood up from the intake desk and walked towards inmate West in order to escort her to the intake dressing room but she continued to be belligerent and uncooperative," West wrote. "I ordered inmate West to stand up and walk into the dressing room but she again refused to comply. I pulled the right sleeve of inmate West's uniform in an attempt to have her walk to the dressing room but she continued to refuse so I grabbed the right sleeve of her uniform shirt and lifted her from the chair. Once on her feet, inmate West was able to turn and face me. I attempted to turn her around by using my right hand and grabbing her right shoulder area then using my left hand to her left arm and was able to turn her away from me."
The video, however, appears to show Connelly pulling her up and throwing her forward, or as Horn noted, "forcefully dragging" her forward, with little to no warning. Connelly claims that once West was inside the room she managed to turn over and try to kick her. While restraining her, Connelly admitted to "striking (West) with a closed right fist two times to the left side of the face."
Johnson also wrote a complete report after West filed the internal affairs investigation that very closely resembled Connelly's version of what had happened. She wrote in the report that she punched West in the ribs in order to gain her compliance. However, Jenkins, who was in the room the entire time, said she never witnessed West get struck by deputies before she was restrained. It doesn't appear the internal investigation addressed that contradiction.
After viewing the video, Florida Atlantic University criminology professor Jeanne Stinchcomb, who specializes in jails, said it appeared to her that Connelly's use of force was improper. While BSO policy demands that all use of force be reasonable and necessary, Stinchcomb said Connelly's abrupt use of force on a sitting and non-threatening West didn't appear to be either.
"She grabbed her with pretty aggressive force," said Stinchcomb. "Minimally, she should be counseled and retrained, not only for the benefit of that particular officer, but also to send a message that that won't be tolerated in this organization."
However, the BSO fully exonerated Connelly of using excessive force and found the allegation of conduct unbecoming of an employee unfounded. Sheriff Scott Israel refused an interview request, but the BSO issued a written statement from him.
"The Professional Standards Committee (PSC), which is made up of a mix of BSO employees and private citizens, reviewed the video and entire IA file and recommended no discipline for all three employees," Israel wrote. "The PSC determined the actions taken were within the policy."
The witness, who gave a sworn statement in the internal investigation, said she felt BSO should have held the deputy accountable.
"I still don't feel like it was right for the deputy to pick her up and throw her around," she said. "It's sad to know that the deputy was exonerated, but that's the America that we live in."
West, whose attorney said he is preparing a civil lawsuit in the case, hadn't seen the video until Wednesday. She said it was difficult to see and voiced disappointment about the outcome of the investigation.
"I'm outraged about it. I cannot believe they got away with that," she said. "It's not fair that they can do that and just turn a blind eye to it. I told everyone in the jail about it and no one cared. It was like it happens all the time."
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