The moment Charles Wade realized he was about to be strapped into a restraint chair, he later recalled, he was filled with terror.
He was about to be booked in October inside the Montgomery County Jail in Dayton, Ohio, the same place a woman named Amber Swink had been pepper-sprayed inside a seven-point harness the year before.
Shocking video of Swink struggling to breathe and then passing out in an isolation cell covered in orange spray — treatment she would later call “torture” — had recently gone viral, and Wade said he had watched it online.
Now, in circumstances that felt eerily similar, Wade was about to be strapped inside his own restraint chair inside the same jail while video cameras rolled.
For Wade, a black man surrounded by white officers in a jail dogged by allegations of abuse, the circumstances were nightmarish, he later said.
Before he was restrained, footage shows Wade struggling with an officer and trying to pound his head against a wall.
Soon after, Wade — fully restrained and surrounded by officers — would be writhing in pain and screaming “I can’t breathe” after enduring two blasts of pepper-spray at point-blank range.
Video of the incident was given to The Washington Post by a local community activist named David Esrati.
On Tuesday, Wade filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Ohio, accusing members of the sheriff’s department of using excessive force “that shocked the conscience and in fact amounted to torture” and “violated his rights to be secure from cruel and unusual punishment.” Like the previous incident involving Swink, the filing also alleges that department officials orchestrated a coverup aimed at destroying evidence of the abuse.
Montgomery County Sheriff Phil Plummer labeled Swink’s treatment “an isolated incident,” but Wade and Swink’s attorney, Douglas Brannon, said that is clearly not the case.
“I think it happened again because there was no discipline handed out to officers involved in abusing Amber Swink,” Brannon said. “I think this type of treatment is becoming something that happens with impunity within the Montgomery County jail. Certainly, there were four large corrections officers — in addition to a sergeant — who were with Charles Wade and who had sufficient control over him and the situation without resorting to excess uses of force, including the pepper spray.”
The Post made multiple attempts to reach Plummer; the sheriff’s secretary said he was “unable to comment on a pending lawsuit.”
The incident involving Wade, of Englewood, Ohio, began when he was arrested for alleged drunken driving by an Ohio State trooper.
Jailhouse video of Wade’s alleged mistreatment — captured on a video surveillance system and a handheld video recorder — begins during the intake process at the Montgomery County Jail minutes after his drunken driving arrest. As officers search Wade, he can be seen slamming his head against a padded portion of the wall, prompting officers to lay him on the ground and call for a restraint chair.
“I’m not resisting,” Wade says. “I’m not doing anything to fight you guys. If you cause any pain, my lawyer will know about it.”
Brannon said his client made the comments because he had viewed the video of Swink being pepper-sprayed and feared experiencing the same treatment.
As Wade is strapped into the chair he complains about his hands — which are handcuffed behind his back — being in pain. Off-camera, a jail official identified in the lawsuit as Sgt. John W. Eversole, tells Wade that his hands will be released and strapped into the arms of the chair momentarily.
“Look what you do to us n—–,” Wade replies. “Do you white people feel good doing this to us n—–? Yeah, you do, don’t you?”
At this point, video shows that both of Wade’s legs and his abdomen are secured in the restraint chair, making it impossible for him to stand or move forward from his waist down.
But as officers begin to unlock Wade’s handcuffs, he starts to struggle and yell while officers press down on his back and neck. The lawsuit says that Wade began to struggle because his handcuffs were manipulated, causing “severe pain and injury.”
After passing the video camera to another officer, the lawsuit alleges that Eversole “takes a full can of OC spray places it directly in the face of Plaintiff Wade and hits him directly in the eye and face at a range of approximately one inch.”
Video shows that about five seconds pass between the time that Wade comments on his hands to the moment when Eversole blasts Wade’s face with pepper spray. During those few seconds, the video reveals that Wade’s hands remain behind his back.
“Only after Defendant Eversole has already sprayed OC spray in Plaintiffs face does he give Plaintiff any verbal commands to ‘stop resisting,'” the suit states.
Seconds later, Wade can be seen on video coughing and struggling to move his left hand — now free from the handcuffs — toward his face. The lawsuit notes that officers, caught in the cloud of pepper-spray, also attempt to cover their mouths in a “similar cough reflex.”
At that point, the lawsuit states, with Wade still strapped in the chair and pinned down by several officers, “Defendant Eversole then administers a second generous dose of OC spray directly to Plaintiffs face and eyes for no reason other than to inflict further pain and injury to the Plaintiff.”
The footage captures Wade repeating “I can’t breathe, help me please” as he writhes in pain and appears to choke while officers work quickly to secure his shoulders and head in the restraint chair.
During this period, the lawsuit alleges, “Defendant Eversole takes his forearm and places it across Plaintiffs chest/neck further restricting his ability to breathe despite Plaintiff’s cries that he already could not breathe.”
Afterward, the lawsuit states, Wade was relocated to a cell for almost five hours.
According to a National Institute of Justice research brief, most U.S. law enforcement agencies have used pepper spray since the late 1980s “as a use-of-force option to subdue and control dangerous, combative, or violent subjects in the field. OC, with its ability to temporarily incapacitate subjects, has been credited with decreasing injuries among officers and arrestees by reducing the need for more severe force options.”
But the incident in Dayton appeared to violate widely accepted law enforcement practices, some experts say.
“You cannot find any training manual that will tell you it is allowable to pepper-spray somebody who is restrained,” said Kamran Loghman, a U.S. Naval Academy professor who helped develop pepper spray for law enforcement use. “It is used to avoid confrontation or injury, so you don’t escalate to higher levels of confrontation. Pepper spray, therefore, should not be used if the subject is expressing verbal disagreement or anger.”
In August, a Georgia sheriff’s deputy was fired and charged with a felony after an investigation determined that she’d used pepper-spray “to punish a jail inmate who spit in her face while his hands and feet were in restraints,” according to the Associated Press. Sgt. Charlesetta Hawkins was charged with cruelty to an inmate.
Brannon said that his client never should have been placed in the restraint chair and only hit his head against the padded wall because he was “frustrated about being arrested.” Wade was merely intoxicated, he said, and showed no aggression toward officers.
“There’s a culture of brutality within the Montgomery County Jail where sergeants and corrections officers continue to act with impunity,” he added. “It’s a fundamental breakdown of supervision and training.”
Swink told The Post last year that her pepper-spray exposure has left her with chronic breathing problems. A busy mother of four, she said she often finds herself gasping for breath the same way she used to as a child, when, she said, she suffered from asthma.
“It’s hard to play with my kids,” she said. “I have to stay inside with the air conditioning so I can breathe.”
There are emotional scars as well, she said: She avoids police whenever possible and said she can’t bear to watch the video that shows her face being blasted by pepper spray.
“My whole life, I looked up to law enforcement,” Swink said. “They would come into our schools and talked to us and they were supposed to be some of the best people you could trust and call on.
“But now I wonder if there’s really anybody watching out for me and my family.”