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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Escambia County (FL) Sheriff's Office Harassment of Ms. Sheila Travis and Family


Escambia County Sheriff's Office deputies are apparently waging a low-level campaign of harrassment and intimidation against Ms. Sheila Travis, who became the first Black female bail bondsman in 2013, and her family.

The types of harassment and intimidation range from stopping her then 20-year old son for driving a Camaro because he "looked suspicious."  Once stopped, they asked him "how he had paid for the car."  Her sister was pulled over by Deputy Jason Young, an officer involved in many of the incidents.

Her other son, Mr. Kelvin Johnson, was pulled over by Deputy Young for "walking while Black."  Deputy Young simply recognized him and decided to pull him over.  Although he had been in custody in the Escambia County Jail when it exploded and killed two inmates, paralyzed a corrections officer, and injured 184 inmates and staff, at the time he was pulled over by Deputy Young he was not wanted for any crime.  Ms. Travis told me that Deputy Young stated that they were looking for a Black male wearing boots, while her son was wearing very bright green tennis shoes.

And then there are the Sheriff's Office cars that slowly cruise past her house in a neighborhood with little or no crime.

Ms. Travis told me, "There is a lot of low-level harassment."

Ms. Travis also told me that she had observed white Sheriff deputies stop Black males on the Pensacola beaches to photograph them when they were not doing anything wrong.  She told me that the white deputies on beach patrol "love to use the N-word either directly to Black people or just talking."

But, the real harassment started after her first arrest that was so bogus that the District Attorney decided to drop all charges and return her bond rather than take the case to a trial by jury.  This article focuses on that arrest and the aftermath of the Jail explosion.

Arrest at the Beach, March 18, 2012 (ECSO12ARR005054)

Like the arrest report examined in the article on Mrs. Lucille Middleton and her daughter Ms. Shaquita Middleton, Ms. Travis's video of the event demonstrates that the arrest report is an act of creative writing.

According to the arrest report, Deputy Young first arrested a Mr. Reginald Burgess for possession of marijuana.  While investigating this crime, a Mr. Odell Blackston became "extremely disruptive and was given multiple verbal commands to back away from the vehicle and to quit cursing and using racial slurs towards law enforcement."  He was arrested for disorderly conduct.

Deputy Young then saw "multiple a crowd...being extremely disruptive and also repeatedly cursing and yelling racial slurs at law enforcement."  This crowd of four individuals were close to families with young children ranging from infancy to 10-11 years of age, according to Deputy Young's account.  Deputy Young continued, "After approximately 20 minutes of repeated commands and the four individuals refused to comply and continued to act disorderly they were arrested."  Of the four individuals arrested, Ms. Travis was included.

Two defendants had their charges dropped, including Ms. Travis, and two defendants had their cases recorded as "nolle prosequi," which is Latin for "will no longer prosecute."

According to Ms. Travis's account, her family was the only Black family on Pensacola Beach when Deputy Young, after passing by, decided to return and question them.  They were not smoking or drinking, and generally just enjoying a very pleasant day at the beach.

In a previous report on Mrs. Middleton and her daughter, Shaquita, a critical examination of the arrest report revealed it be a work of fiction.  In the case of Ms. Travis and the other three arrestees, a videotape reveals the arrest report to be another work of fiction.''

The video shows a family at Pensacola beach under a gazebo grilling, laughing, sharing stories, and generally celebrating a birthday party.  A young man is arrested not too far from the gazebo.  However, the video reveals no effort by Mr. Odell Blackston to be "extremely disruptive" or "using racial slurs towards law enforcement."  The video reveals that no person under the gazebo was "extremely disruptive" and "repeatedly cursing and yelling racial slurs at law enforcement."

The arrest report would have you believe that only Deputy Young was on the scene.  That is not the case.  At least 6 or 7 deputies were at the scene.  They huddled in the parking lot and then moved to arrest the celebratory birthday party.  Ms. Travis, far from being disruptive and cursing, was sitting down when she was arrested.

Why so many deputies were dispatched to a scene where there was no disturbance is a mystery.  The video shows other people walking next to the Sheriff's Office deputies without a care in the world.  They do not even glance toward where the racial slurs would have been coming from.  In other words, the only racial slurs Deputy Young heard were in his own mind.

The Escambia County Jail Gas Explosion, April 30, 2014

On April 30, 2014, at approximately 2300 hours, the Escambia County Jail suffered a catastrophic explosion that completely destroyed the jail, then under the supervision of the Escambia County commissioners, killed two inmates, paralyzed one correctional guard, and injured 184 prisoners and jail staff.  In the confusion, three inmates were unaccounted for, though jail officials claimed that they were in custody, according to a CBS News report.

It was in this context of three unaccounted inmates and eyewitness reports that more than two body bags had been removed from the jail, that the visibly upset Ms. Travis confronted Sheriff David Morgan while he was conducting a press conference on May 2nd.

According to my own transcript, this was the following short exchange:

Ms. Travis:  "My son has not been accounted for.  How do you think family members are feeling that their kids haven't been accounted for?  And I've seen more than two body bags come out of there."

The petulant, unemotional, robotic Sheriff Morgan replied:  "Ma'am, I would direct your concerns to...

Ms. Travis interjected:  "I am directing it to you.  You're the Sheriff.  You didn't even come up here last night when we were up here.  People were standing in the rain begging for information and you couldn't even show your face.  But, you show your face during elections."

Again, Sheriff Morgan deadpanned, "Ma'am, the jail does not work for me."

That is the calloused response of a Sheriff, the top cop in the county, who simply does not care about the residents of Escambia County.  Having lost ownership of the Escambia County Jail because the U.S. Department of Justice found in its Jail Findings Letter dated May 22, 2013, that "conditions there still routinely violate the constitutional rights of prisoners.  Specifically, we find that obvious and known deficiencies at the Facility continue to subject prisoners to excessive risk of assault by other prisoners and to inadequate mental health care.  We also find that the Jail's decades-long unwritten policy of designating some of its housing units as only for black prisoners violates the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause."

The Jail Findings letter went on to state, that while under-manning contributed to the violence between prisoners, "The Jail's decades-long practice of housing some prisoners in housing units designated as only for black prisoners ('black-only pods') discriminates against African-Americans on the basis of their race, contributes to prisoner perceptions that the Jail favors white prisoners and over black prisoners, and makes the Facility less safe by fanning racial tensions between prisoners."

In a video response to the residents of Escambia County, Sheriff David 'Data' Morgan, blatantly lied to them about the findings of the Department of Justice report.  At roughly the 22:55 mark, the Sheriff states:

"You read in the paper [the Pensacola News Journal] about one instance of segregation in the Escambia County Jail, and that was the focus.  So let me explain to you what that instance of segregation was.  In the sixth and final visit from the Department of Justice before they rendered their final report they did inmate interviews.  Now, they did them with all other five also and at no time was any issue of segregation ever raised.  I will also tell you that the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union], and the local Movement for Change all were given badges to the Escambia County Jail upon my assuming office....In four and one-half years we never had a suit filed against us by the ACLU or any other civil rights organizations alleging segregation in the Escambia County Jail.  In this last interview with the Department of Justice investigators one of our Black inmates made the observation that he would like white inmates to be on his floor.  And that is what came out as segregation at the Escambia County Jail."

Here is what the Department of Justice's report states on page 11:

"The use of black-only pods also contributes to the level of violence.  The Facility's decades-long, unwritten policy of housing many of its black prisoners in black-only pods creates the impression in the minds of both black and white prisoners alike that the Jail is biased against black prisoners.  When we spoke to black prisoners, many expressed tremendous anger that the Jail segregates some of its black prisoners into black-only pods.  All of the prisoners we spoke to housed in the black-only pods and many of the white and black prisoners we spoke housed in other pods alleged that correctional officers mistreat those in black-only pods.  Those allegations include the following: (1) correctional officers order more pod-wide lock downs of the black-only pods than the other pods; (2) prisoners in the black-only pods routinely receive cold food because correctional officers consistently serve food to the prisoners in the black-only pods last; (3) correctional officers provide those in the black-only pods with fewer cleaning materials and implements to keep their cells and common area clean; and, (4) the Jail sometimes overrides its own classification system by housing prisoners in pods too dangerous for their security levels when making housing placements into black-only pods."

The DOJ report did not offer an opinion as to whether these allegations were true.  But, the allegations are certainly consistent with the expected policy outcome of a Sheriff believing that all young Black males are "Super Predators."  If these young Black men are animals, the theory goes, then treat them like animals.

But, Sheriff Morgan's contention that the Department of Justice based its claim of a "decades-long, unwritten policy" of segregated prisoner housing on the opinion of one Black inmate is ludicrous.  While it may appear that the Sheriff's attachment to reality appears at times to be tenuous, the reality is that he will go to nearly any length to distort reality in order to make himself come out as the persecuted and the triumphant.

And it is these bold-faced lies, when contrary evidence is readily available, that leads many in the Black community to not trust the Sheriff and his deputies.  He assumes, perhaps correctly, that his base of support will simply believe their persecuted Sheriff and will not attempt to fact-check his assertions because they implicitly trust him.

Although the Department of Justice report did praise the Sheriff and his staff for improvements during the time he had assumed control of the Jail, the supposedly data-driven Sheriff who tries to portray himself as a modern sheriff--hence his emphasis on data and science--saw absolutely nothing wrong with the white supremacist model at the Jail.  After all, a "decades-long" policy certainly stretches back to the final decades of Jim Crow and into the New Jim Crow era.  As critical criminologist Jason M. Williams noted,"This tumultuous relationship between police and Blacks does not exist in a vacuum, as so many paint it.  In fact, according to many criminologists and police scholars, American policing began in the South with the slave patrols, and yet, today, as then, the response to the outcries of Blacks on this issue is non-acknowledgement and condemnation."

This "non-acknowledgement" of Black concerns was on spectacular view in the preliminary report by a private contractor on the cause of the Escambia County Jail explosion.

Immediately after the explosion, Ms. Sheila Travis and county prisoners interviewed by the Pensacola News Journal reported smelling gas in the immediate days before the explosion.

Ms. Travis, according to a Rick's Blog report, stated that her "oldest son, 24-year-old Kelvin Johnson, called her during the day to say he smelled gas all day and was feeling light headed but jail officials refused to move him and others who complained.  The inmates were told to go lie down."

The Pensacola News Journal published a story on May 8th, with the caption: "Six inmates who were in Escambia County Jail went it exploded said they smelled gas long before the April 30 explosion."  The inmates not only smelled natural gas in the days prior to the explosion, they became ill or light-headed, and they also informed correctional personnel of their health and safety concerns.  The inmates stated that the correctional personnel could not possibly have been unaware of the natural gas smell.

DuWayne Escobedo, an investigative reporter for the Pensacola law firm, Micheles & Booth, reported that the firm was revealing the results of its public records request concerning the cause of the explosion.  The law firm represents 80 clients linked to the explosion.  The contracting firm, McDonald Fleming Moorehead, wrote a preliminary report for Escambia County.  Escobedo reported: "Shift Commander Lt. Joe Ryals and Lt. Roberta Varvorine, who were on duty at the time of the explosion, both testified to the firm that they were unaware of any gas leak prior to the blast.  'It defies logic to think these officials [would] have ignored the smell of gas, or reports of the smell of gas, in the very building in which they were working at the time of the explosion,' the report said."

The statement that it "defies logic" is an assumption masquerading as a conclusion.  From press reports, there were at least seven prisoners who smelled the natural gas.  There are many industrial accidents, including British Petroleum's Deepwater Horizon blowout, in which the actions of corporate officials "defy logic."

But, the Escambia County Jail explosion, which almost cost her son his life, turned Ms. Travis into a political advocate for the prisoners and their families.  Ms. Travis and Ms. Trina Coburn co-founded Justice for All People.  Their immediate concerns were to ensure that the prisoners received prompt and adequate medical treatment for their injuries, as well as longer-range psychological counseling for the psychological trauma from the explosion.  Ms. Travis remains an activist citizen attempting to right a wrong.

Concluding Observation

In the case of Ms. Travis, four observations appear relevant.

One, it appears that the Sheriff deputies engage in their own micro-aggressions of stop-and-frisk when they lack probable cause for stopping young Black men.  Ms. Travis's son was committing no crime when he was stopped and asked how he had paid for his car.  Her other son, despite not matching the description of the suspect they were looking for (except being Black) was stopped and questioned with no probable cause.  What is the reason for slowly cruising past her house?  Other young Black men are stopped and asked to be photographed--no doubt looking for gang-related tattoos or other identifying marks.

Two, the written arrest report is so at variance with the video tape of the event that it raises serious questions as to the professionalism of some of the Sheriff's deputies.  The report appears to be a work of creative writing, in which the actors are there but the dialogue is different.

In the videos of Sheriff Morgan I have watched, he tries to come across as someone willing to discuss an issue, but this veneer of civility always comes with an unstated, but clearly implied threat: see this issue my way, or face severe but unstated consequences.  In one video, he issued at least two veiled threats at the Pensacola News Journal.  This is a Sheriff who gives every indication of being thin-skinned and vindictive.

Thus, three, I think it is probable that the low-level harassment of Ms. Travis and her family is linked to her expression of her constitutional rights in challenging the law enforcement system regarding the rights and health/safety of prisoners in the aftermath of the Jail explosion.  Ms. Travis's beseeching Sheriff Morgan for information about her son and his disregard for the feelings of families with inmates injured in the Jail explosion in front of television journalists from around the country would almost certainly have earned his enmity.

But, the aftermath of the Jail explosion, which still concerns Ms. Travis, has these lingering unanswered questions: (1) how many of the Escambia County Jail's correctional officers complained of headaches or illness and left their shifts early in the weeks prior to the explosion? (2) how many of the Jail's correctional officers have still not returned to work due to the physical and/or psychological traumas they suffered? and (3) how many, if any, prisoners released from the Jail have their medical and counseling bills paid for by the County?  If these bills are not being paid, why not?

1 comment:

  1. Tell u what she needs to get in line cause esc co arrests numerous people daily for crap charges r beefed up only to b dropped or reduced by the overworked states attoneys office.i speak as someone who has spent a quarter of my 48 yrs in and out of a cess pool of sh!my advice set up shop somewhere else.your onthere radar they do what they want