The U.S. Department of Justice said it is “monitoring” the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office’s brutal arrest of a 24-year-old man who suffered a head injury and a ruptured kidney.
Jacksonville Sheriff T.K. Waters has defended the officers who arrested Le’keian Woods on Sept. 29. All of them have returned to work.
Those officers jolted Woods with a Taser twice and punched and kneed him at least 17 times during his arrest. It left Woods’s face so puffy and bloody that his mugshot required a content warning when displayed by local TV news stations.
Woods’ attorney Harry Daniels sent a letter on Oct. 5 to the DOJ, detailing Woods’ closed head injury, a ruptured kidney and severe swelling and cuts to his face. Daniels also wrote that Woods “is one of several unarmed people of color who has been brutally beaten after encountering members of JSO.”
The DOJ Civil Rights Division, criminal section, responded last week, saying it would review Woods’s arrest. It said when the division finds a “systemic ‘pattern or practice’ depriving people of constitutional rights, it may bring a civil action against state or local officials.”
It also said the criminal section of the division as well as the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida are “aware of the allegations, and we are monitoring the incident.”
If a prosecutable federal criminal civil rights offense is found, the department said it will take action.
JSO released a statement on Tuesday that said, “Any characterization that the Department of Justice is actively monitoring the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office is categorically and unequivocally false. The JSO is not being monitored, investigated, or examined by the DOJ. As our agency has previously articulated, we welcome the DOJ inquiry regarding the JSO officers’ conduct during the arrest of Mr. Woods, as we are confident that federal investigators will arrive at our same conclusion that the involved officers acted within administrative policy.”
This isn’t the first time the DOJ has been petitioned to investigate JSO.
State Rep. Angie Nixon and state Sen. Tracie Davis’ asked the department to investigate the Duval County jail after The Tributary found the death rate among inmates tripled after the jail privatized medical care.
The letter cited that reporting, and urged the department to investigate “potential violations of federal law by those involved.”
The DOJ referred that request for internal review, but federal prosecutors wouldn’t “confirm or deny” they were investigating the jail conditions. The department said the legislators “should not interpret this acknowledgement as confirmation of an investigation of the matters described in your letter.”
What the body camera shows
The confrontation between Woods and police started at a gas station in the 6600 block of Powers Avenue. Officer Josue’ Garriga was stationed in an unmarked vehicle and reported that he saw Woods involved in a drug deal while armed. Garriga said he knew Woods was armed because the young man’s pants were “weighing heavy” on one side, according to the police report.
Woods then went back into the Ram he had been in and the driver left the gas station. Detectives Beau Daigle and Hunter Sullivan followed the truck.
Body camera footage from Sullivan shows that when the driver stopped, Woods jumped out of the front passenger seat of a truck and ran away while he held his right pants pocket. A cell phone fell out of it during the struggle. Police said they thought it was still armed.
Sullivan used his Taser twice on Woods, who face planted on the street after the second time.
He curled his body and lied on his left side when Sullivan got on top of him and yelled to get his hands behind his back. The video showed that Woods tried to prop himself up with his right hand when Sullivan shoved him back onto the ground. Woods positioned himself onto his hands and knees, and Sullivan shoved him down again.
Woods told Sullivan, “I don’t even got nothing.”
A couple seconds later, Sullivan told him again to put his hands behind his back and Woods said, “They’re behind me.”
Woods’ right hand was behind his back, but Sullivan left that hand alone and grabbed Woods’ left arm, which was not behind his back. When Sullivan twisted that arm behind Woods’ body, he kept shouting at Woods to put his hands behind him. At that point, Woods’ right hand was back under his body, close to his head.
When Sullivan said, “give me your hand,” Woods showed him his right hand and opened his palm, which was under his body, next to his head. Sullivan yelled at him to put it behind his back again.
It’s then that the other officers showed up and immediately started to knee and punch Woods.
Kim Varner, a former JSO narcotics officer who retired from a 26-year career, watched the body camera footage and attributed Woods’ movements to human nature.
“When you’re getting hit in the face, it’s natural to move your hands up to protect yourself,” Varner said.
The gun officers said Woods had during the drug deal had been found in the pocket of a back seat passenger who was arrested without incident.
Woods was arrested on drug and gun charges and, as of Tuesday, was still in Duval County custody. His latest mugshot showed that while the swelling and bruising have gone down on his face, the whites of his eyes are completely bloodshot.
Varner, the former JSO officer, watched the body camera footage and disagreed with the sheriff’s assessment of it.
“I never saw resistance from Woods,” Varner said after watching body camera footage of the arrest. “There are times where you have to fight, but this time wasn’t it. It was unjustifiable to hit him in the face.”