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Man claiming excessive force sues Cuyahoga County, jailers

Video shows pepper foaming at point-blank range
Cuyahoga County Jail excessive force
Posted at 6:20 PM, Oct 15, 2021

CLEVELAND — A former Cuyahoga County jail inmate is suing the county and three corrections officers claiming excessive force and intentional infliction of emotional distress following a pair of incidents in which the man said he was pepper sprayed at close range by officers.

According to the federal lawsuit, both incidents happened inside the troubled jail in October 2019.

In one case caught on camera inside the jail's medical dispensary, Deonte James can be heard asking a jailer to allow James to pull up his pants.

The video shows officers struggled with James with one jailer telling another to "OC" or pepper foam James.

Video captured officers pinning James as another sprayed pepper foam into his eyes at point-blank range.

The spraying lasted about four seconds, according to the video.

James' attorney called it part of a pattern of excessive violence by staff inside Cuyhaoga County's jail.

"As he tries to pull up his pants an attack ensues that is unjustified, unnecessary and unconstitutional," said attorney Ashlie Case Sletvold.

Making matters worse, she said, jailers knew James who was awaiting trial on harassment charges, suffered from mental health issues.

"I think the basic level of care that a person in the midst of a mental health crisis needs is the patience and understanding of the people that are charged with their care and not instant brutality," said Case Sletvold.

County records show the jailer who pepper foamed James in the eyes was suspended five days for that incident, as well as another three months later.

In the disciplinary notice, the county's human resource director wrote the officer "deployed multiple bursts directly into the face of the inmate even after he was secured to the floor," and that the officer continued to deploy pepper foam outside the guidelines of his training.

Friday, a spokesperson said the county's legal department would review the lawsuit but could not comment further.

According to the lawsuit, another jailer sprayed James with pepper foam as he covered himself with a blanket after being told to undress after threatening suicide.

The latest lawsuit is one of dozens the county faces connected to problems at the jail.

Already, taxpayers have paid more than $1 million in jail-related settlements since 2018.

But Case Sletvold believes despite a 2018 US Marshals report that called conditions inside the jail "inhumane," and criminal convictions that sent former jail director Ken Mills to jail, the county is still dealing with what she calls a level of violence that's out-of-control inside the jail.

"Cuyahoga County jail needs to follow the Constitution," said Case Sletvold. "It needs to follow the laws of the State of Ohio and it needs to train its corrections staff to use appropriate—and only appropriate—amounts of force rather than hair-trigger brutalization of inmates with pepper foam."

Late Friday, a spokesman for the union representing Cuyahoga County's corrections officers said he had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment on it.

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