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‘Twist her wrist until she shuts up’

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

The inmate lay on the floor sobbing, and Sgt. Eric Allen decided he’d had enough.

“Put her in a wrist lock,” he tells another jail officer at the Metropolitan Detention Center, “and twist her wrist until she shuts up and stops crying.”

It doesn’t work. Almost nothing does. The inmate – a petite woman named Susie Chavez – spends the next 45 minutes shrieking, sobbing and crying out in pain as Allen and other officers escort her to a medical unit.

The crying starts after Chavez is hit with a stun gun to the back. She later endures the wrist lock and inflammatory spray to the face. At one point, she starts banging her head on the ground.

The stomach-churning video, released by the county Wednesday in response to a request by the Journal under the Inspection of Public Records Act, is part of an investigation into Sgt. Allen, who’s been on paid leave since January, county and union officials say. Allen is a frontline supervisor at the jail – vice president of the jail officers’ union and someone who has trained other officers on the use of force.

A jail officer appears to grab inmate Susie Chavez's hair. (Source: Bernalillo County)

A jail officer appears to grab inmate Susie Chavez’s hair. (Source: Bernalillo County)

In the video, taken by a camera worn by Allen, the sergeant is calm, almost nonchalant. He whistles at one point while he gets supplies.

“You’re going to get Maced if you don’t be quiet … last chance,” Allen says at one point.

Chavez asks: “Is it because I cry you’re going to Mace me?”

A female officer responds: “Yes.”

Lt. Stephen Perkins, president of the union that represents jail officers, said Allen and other officers in the video didn’t do anything wrong. It’s appropriate to use force to get an inmate to stop making noise, if the ruckus is keeping the inmate from hearing and following commands, he said.

“There was no policy violation,” Perkins said in an interview Wednesday.

And he also cautioned against drawing conclusions based on a video without the context of knowing what happened beforehand.

County officials “release the video but don’t put it in context,” Perkins said. “Now we have lay people … claiming things are excessive force.”

Chavez isn’t listed in online jail records showing people in custody or recently released. It isn’t clear why she was in custody. The video is from an incident in September last year.

Allen himself isn’t seen in the video because he’s the one wearing the camera.

Use of force review

Release of the video comes as Bernalillo County moves to address use of force inside the jail and the effectiveness of its own internal handling of allegations of inmate abuse.

In December, private investigators hired by the county said the jail appeared to have no standardized training in place for officers, and there were discrepancies among trainers about what’s supposed to be taught.

The jail is now training officers on a new use-of-force policy.

No use-of-force reports or investigations explaining the incident were provided in response to the Journal‘s request. A county spokeswoman said the Chavez incident is the subject of a law-enforcement investigation.

County Commissioner Wayne Johnson called the video “troubling.” He’s seen parts of it, he said.

The Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office, meanwhile, isn’t releasing reports, either. A spokeswoman there said last month that she couldn’t provide any reports involving Allen, citing an “ongoing investigation.”

Stun gun

The video, dated Sept. 19, 2015, starts with a female jail officer holding Chavez against a wall while Allen searches her cell. Allen appears to be going through pages torn out of a magazine, put up around a bunk.

Chavez says later that the incident started because she had posters on the wall.

Perkins, the union president, said posters can be a problem because they can be used to hide contraband.

In any case, Chavez – against the wall – appears to try to turn around, asking for the name of the officer behind her. The officer, at one point, seems to pull Chavez up by her hair after she sits or kneels.

Inmate Susie Chavez shrieks and cries after arriving in a medical unit at the Bernalillo County jail. (Source: Bernalillo County)

Inmate Susie Chavez shrieks and cries after arriving in a medical unit at the Bernalillo County jail. (Source: Bernalillo County)

Chavez falls to the ground as a stun gun is applied. Allen later tells a colleague that officers used a “drive stun” on Chavez a couple of times. That’s a technique in which the stun gun is pressed directly against the subject and activated to cause pain.

Chavez sobs on the ground after that, and Allen tells another officer to twist her wrist to get her to stop making noise.

Chavez screams. “You’re going to break my (expletive) wrist, bitch.”

She continues to cry as officers escort her down a hallway on their way to a medical unit. Allen repeatedly warns Chavez to be quiet, threatening her with inflammatory spray if she doesn’t comply.

Officers lower Chavez to the ground at one point after she won’t quiet down.

“You’re using excessive force,” Chavez says in between sobs.

Allen responds: “Now you’re getting into stuff where we’re going to hurt you over. You need to be quiet.”

She starts to bang her head on the floor, and officers deploy the spray.

Chavez continues to cry.

“Clearly, you need to reconsider your choices in life if this is how you’re going to react when you get Maced,” Allen says later.

Allen and others help Chavez wash her face in the medical unit.

Chavez, through sobs, tells a counselor that she’s suicidal, that she’s lost her son.

“I didn’t do nothing wrong,” she says.

Earlier incident

Allen has worked as a corrections officer since 2003. This year’s stint on paid leave isn’t his first dispute with the jail administration.

The county fired Allen after a 2008 allegation of excessive use of force. Allen was accused of punching an inmate twice in the head. The inmate had punched him first, the union argued.

An independent arbitrator ordered the county to reinstate Allen in late 2009. The arbitrator said the county’s use-of-force policy was too confusing and that there were “gross discrepancies” in training. Allen’s reaction to the inmate’s punch was reasonable and matched his training, the arbitrator said.

As for the September video, County Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins said she has read a description of the video but not seen it herself.

“I understand it’s very disturbing,” she said. “Any excessive use of force at MDC is intolerable, and we have taken several steps in recent months to promptly investigate all use of force incidents and take appropriate action when warranted.”

Johnson called the video “troubling.”

“In my inexpert opinion,” Johnson said, “whenever you see someone in distress like that and kind of the casual disregard for that distress – and even casual use of force – it’s always going to make you nervous and trouble you.”

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