A Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office police car.

The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office defended the four officers who brutally arrested a 24-year-old after first jolting him twice with a Taser, kneeing him four times in a shoulder and even more times in his face, elbowing one of his eyes three times and punching him five times in his face and ribs, blows that left his face so puffy and bloody that his mugshot required a content warning when displayed by local TV news stations.

Just days after the incident, Sheriff T.K. Waters held a news conference Monday where he said that based on the information they have now, the officers acted appropriately and in compliance with the law and JSO policy when they beat Le’keian Woods. All officers have returned to work, despite an administrative review still pending.

Waters defended his officers’ violence by saying Woods resisted and the officers had believed he had a gun in his waistband  — even though Woods didn’t at the time of the arrest. Police never recovered a gun from Woods, though they claim a gun found in a truck belonged to him.

Le’keian Woods, 24.

“There was force by arresting officers, and yes, that force is ugly,” Waters said. “But the reality is that all force, all violence is ugly. And just because force is ugly does not mean it is unlawful or contrary to policy.”

Waters criticized bystanders who had released footage of the violent arrest, saying their video was edited to make it look like an officer kicked Woods in the face while he was handcuffed. While Waters disputed that, the officers did admit to the punching, elbowing, kneeing and deploying a stun gun repeatedly.

Waters called the conference to release body camera footage of the beating and condemn those bystanders.

“The intentional distribution of manipulative video is shocking, unacceptable, and frankly immoral,” Waters said of the people who uploaded the initial footage. He said equally important to accountability for police wrongdoing was “speaking up when our officers are wronged.”

The phone videos – which also included a longer video of police punching Woods – caused outrage and a protest was held Sunday.

“I’m at a point now that I just want answers for my son,” Natassia Woods, his mother, told a crowd of demonstrators in front of the Police Memorial Building. “I want justice for my son. No one should be beaten like that.”

The demonstrators called for the disbanding of JSO’s gang unit, which had already come under fire last year after it was discovered that members had a group chat called “P—y A– Crackers” where they had stereotyped Black people and made one Black officer so uncomfortable he sought counseling from his pastor. 

One of the detectives involved in Woods’ beating – Josue’ Garriga – was a member of that chat and had asked the group “Why are they recognizing that clown” when the NFL memorialized a Black FAMU student whom Garriga killed after a traffic stop in 2019. 

“Goes to show no matter how wrong they are, they still will be recognized just because they are Black,” Garriga wrote, later sending a facepalm emoji. 

Police punched, kneed Le’keian Woods

Detective Hunter Sullivan said in a partly redacted eight-page police report that he punched Woods in the face multiple times because Woods wasn’t complying with demands to stop running from police. He believed Woods had a gun on him because he held his pants as he ran. 

What led up to that confrontation started at a gas station in the 6600 block of Powers Avenue where Garriga was stationed in an unmarked vehicle.

Garriga watched an interaction between someone in a Dodge Durango, who was parked at a pump but not using it, and Woods, who got out of nearby Ram and approached the SUV. When Woods walked up to the vehicle, Garriga thought Woods was carrying a gun because his pants were “weighing heavy” on one side, according to the police report. 

When asked to clarify if the officer saw a gun, Waters said, “Well, there’s the unknown. The problem is, it’s very easy to always go back and look and say ‘Oh, he didn’t have a weapon.’ But at the time, they’d already seen a drug transaction. They knew he had a gun in his pocket. They had no way of knowing he had transferred the gun to another individual in the car.”

After a few minutes, Garriga said Woods counted cash outside of the Durango. Garriga overheard someone say, “hold on we are handling business.” The report doesn’t say how close Garriga was to the vehicles or how he heard this.

Woods then went back into the Ram and the driver left the gas station – Detective Beau Daigle and Sullivan began to follow the truck because the driver wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, according to the report. The report doesn’t say if Garriga actually saw an exchange of drugs or money at the gas station.

Natassia Woods said her son, his uncle, and his friend were pulled over as they were on their way to Woods’ grandmother’s house. 

YouTube video

Daigle said he tried to pull the Ram over at Old Kings Road South and Plaza Gate Lane. The driver turned onto Plaza Gate Lane, off of the busier of the two roads and drove a few blocks before he stopped the truck at Kensington Gardens Lane near the dead end of the apartment complex.

When the truck was stopped, Woods took off running, according to body camera footage. The two other passengers stayed in the truck and were arrested.

Sullivan ran after him and shouted, “you are so f—ed” and said he was going to tase Woods. He then used his taser twice, hitting Woods in the back the second time, causing him to fall onto the pavement. 

Sullivan said he got on top of Woods and started to shout for him to put his hands behind his back. At a couple points, Woods had at least one hand behind his back before he moved again.

Sullivan wrote that he punched Woods in the face at least 5 times and also struck him in the ribs. 

Garriga, who then arrived at the apartment complex, kneed Woods in the shoulder four times and in the ribs to get Woods’ hands behind his back, according to the report. He also kneed Woods in the face, which Garriga said was unintentional.

While officers were trying to get Woods’ body up to cuff him, Detective Trey McCullough got out of his car and ran toward the fight. McCullough elbowed Woods in his right eye, according to the report. 

Woods was charged with armed trafficking in methamphetamine, armed trafficking in cocaine, armed possession of a controlled substance, resisting an officer with violence, altering, destroying, concealing or removing records, and possessing a controlled substance without a prescription. 

The report says a handgun was “involved” and not discharged. Woods is accused of giving it to the other passenger before he ran.

The driver was arrested on suspicion of being a habitual traffic offender, possession under 20 grams of marijuana, and traffic violations. The third man who was in the vehicle was released without charges.

Waters said the officers knew who Woods was. He had  pleaded guilty to a 2018 armed robbery in Leon County and was still on probation. 

Demands for justice

The Jacksonville Community Action Committee organized the Sunday rally where dozens of people called for the disbandment of the JSO gang unit and the implementation of a civilian-run Public Safety Committee that can review Sheriff’s Office policy.

Natassia Woods said her son’s beating was so bad he has already been back and forth between the jail and a hospital to be treated for a concussion. 

“When he called me from the jail, he said, ‘Mama what happened to me?’” she said.

Michael Sampson, who helped found the Jacksonville Community Action Committee, said Sheriff Waters cannot expect to build relationships in a community while his officers beat Black men. 

“This gang unit is particularly known in the Eastside,” he said. “People know they’re aggressive, they’re known to harass people.” 

The Sheriff’s Office’s internal affairs unit investigated a sergeant  in the gang unit last November after reporters from First Coast News and News4Jax asked about a racist group chat and the sergeant’s tweets. 

In the group chat, First Coast News reported that officers discussed an NFL ceremony honoring  Jamee Johnson, who was killed by Garriga in 2019.

The investigation found that the group chat did not violate any policy. 

Sampson, the activist, said brutal arrests like Woods’ deepens divides between the community and the police.

“We call for a public safety committee to be created, which is our version of a civilian review board because we need to be proactive in forming these relationships between law enforcement and the community,” he said. “This gang unit has led to a deterioration of the relationship between the community and law enforcement. … You’re chastising the community for not being vocal to come forward and help law enforcement but then you see the gang unit beat up a young Black man, so maybe that’s why.”

Nichole Manna reports on the criminal justice system in Jacksonville. She has previously covered criminal justice at newspapers in Texas, Kansas, Nebraska, North Carolina and Tennessee, but is originally...