'Cruel & unusual'

Woman pepper-sprayed by police at point-blank range while she was restrained

Jailhouse surveillance footage showing a police sergeant pepper-spraying Amber Swank while she was restrained in a chair last November. (The Washington Post)

A 25-year-old Ohio woman is suing police in Dayton for cruel and unusual punishment after she was detained in an isolation cell, confined to a restraint chair and then repeatedly pepper-sprayed. The incident was captured by a jailhouse surveillance camera and has been entered as evidence by lawyers representing Amber Swink, the woman seen on the police footage, in a federal lawsuit. The incident took place last November after Swink was arrested at her home while she was severely intoxicated.

The footage is difficult to watch. It opens with Swink already restrained in a seven-point harness chair with an orange stain on the front of her shirt. Swink said she’d already been pepper-sprayed once. At about the 25-second mark of the video, Sgt. Judith L. Sealey walks into the cell and, standing over her, abruptly blasts a stream of pepper spray directly into her face for no apparent reason. Just as mysteriously as Sealey had entered the cell, she then promptly vanished leaving Swink coughing and gasping for air. At one point, Swink appears to lose consciousness.

“It felt like somebody just crushed up fresh peppers and made me use them as face cream,” Swink told The Washington Post. “It took my breath away. You’re fighting for air. I remember my mouth was filling with a thick slobber, like foaming up — and that was also blocking my airway. I thought I might die.”

Swink and her lawyers have conceded that she was violently drunk on the night of the incident and that she even tried to kick the arresting officer. Montgomery County Sheriff Phil Plummer, who at the time of an interview hadn’t seen the video but acknowledged Swink had been pepper-sprayed while restrained, accused Swink of also spitting on an officer. He blamed the lapse on his officers being overwhelmed. “Thirty percent of my jail is people suffering from mental illnesses,” Plummer told the Post in a telephone interview. “There are a lot of situations that the police officers should not be dealing with, but everybody wants to blame the police.”

Pepper-spraying a suspect that is restrained is a violation of the department’s use-of-force protocol, one that, according to the lawsuit, the cruel and unusual punishment “amount to torture.” And the excessive use of force only comprises half of the accusations Swink, who says she’s suffered mental distress and chronic breathing problems since the incident, and her lawyers are litigating. They are also making explosive racial accusations about Sealey, the officer who administered the pepper-spray, and the department’s handling of the fallout that followed. Watch the full jailhouse video below.

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Read the full story at The Washington Post.

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