BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – The Brevard County Sheriff’s Office quietly changed its restraint chair and spit hood policy last year shortly after the State Attorney’s Office ruled deputies committed no crimes and were justified in their use of force that preceded the 2018 death in custody of former U.S. Army combat medic Gregory Lloyd Edwards, News 6 partner Florida Today reported.
The fact was uncovered from materials generated by FLORIDA TODAY’s recent lawsuit against the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office for the release of the jail video the day Edwards was arrested. The video was released at 12:30 p.m. Friday.
The release follows a settlement that Sheriff Wayne Ivey agreed to in lieu of going to trial after FLORIDA TODAY sued his office for the video. Ivey had been refusing to make the footage public because he said it would reveal jail security features, putting staff and inmates in danger. The redacted video satisfies Sheriff Ivey’s security concerns.
Edwards, a U.S. combat veteran, died Dec. 10, 2018, after a violent confrontation with corrections deputies at the Brevard County Jail the day before. Deputies punched, kneed, pepper-sprayed and tased the resisting Edwards before leaving him unattended, strapped in a restraint chair with a spit hood over his head and pepper spray still on his face. He was found unresponsive 16 minutes later.
In an Oct. 14 deposition with attorney Ed Birk, who represented FLORIDA TODAY in the lawsuit, Sheriff’s Office Chief of Judicial Services Michael DeMorat testified under oath that changes to certain policies were at least in part due to the Edwards case. The policy changes took place out of the normal sequence of reviewing policies.
“There are changes that were made to certain policies. The Edwards incident is part of those type of changes that we made, but it’s not the sole reason for policy changes,” DeMorat testified.
Spit hoods involved in multiple in-custody deaths
The policy, amended July 31, 2019 — five months before the policy was scheduled for review —now requires deputies to continuously observe inmates who have been secured in the chair while wearing a spit hood until the hood is removed. The hoods, fine-mesh drawstring bags used by police and corrections officers, typically to protect them from a restrained inmate’s aggressive spitting at officers, have come under scrutiny after their involvement in a number of in-custody deaths across the country.
Corrections deputies are also now prohibited from using the hoods in conjunction with pepper spray, a factor which Dr. Dan Woodard, a physician working at the Kennedy Space Center and a former emergency room doctor, previously said could have contributed to Edwards' death.
Woodard said an autopsy report and readout of Edward’s vital signs, taken when jail medical staff attempted to revive Edwards, showed classic signs of suffocation or oxygen starvation.
“Medically this case is almost identical to a death by chokehold as the chain of events is exactly the same except for the mechanism by which the victim is deprived of oxygen,” Woodard told FLORIDA TODAY in a prior email. “The cause of death in both cases is asphyxiation.”
The opinion contradicts Brevard Medical Examiner Dr. Sajid S. Qaiser’s conclusion that Edwards died of “excited delirium,” a controversial syndrome disproportionately linked to deaths in police custody. The judgment drew scrutiny from one of Florida’s top-ranking medical examiners.
Both Qaiser and the Sheriff’s Office criminal investigation have dismissed the spit hood having any role in Edward’s death. Similarly, a panel convened by the state Medical Examiners Commission did not single out the device, and a review of the sheriff’s investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement — where Ivey worked for nearly two decades before being elected sheriff — described the spit hood as inconsequential.
Despite Ivey’s insistence that the combined use of force against Edwards was reasonable and appropriate, evidence generated by the lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Office suggests the incident — especially after he was restrained in the chair — directly influenced the policy change.
DeMorat noted the policy was already up for review as part of a regular annual evaluation, though records show the review was scheduled to occur by the end of December 2019, five months after the change was implemented.
The policy change also now requires deputies to fill out use-of-force reports when spit hoods are deployed.
Notably, the policy change came just a month after the State Attorney wrapped up its review of the Edwards' case on July 1, 2019, and two weeks after the BCSO sent letters of reprimand to four jail officers on July 17. The officers were criticized for their lack of leadership for, among other things, failing to assign a deputy to monitor Edwards in the restraint chair, and allowing the spit hood that was used on Edwards — important evidence — to be thrown away by an inmate assigned to clean up what had become a crime scene.
Sheriff says deputies did everything right
Ivey did not respond to questions sent through a spokesman about the policy change, its timing or the connection to the Edwards case. The sheriff has for many months refused to answer questions from FLORIDA TODAY reporters based on his assertion that FLORIDA TODAY is biased against him and against law enforcement generally.
Ivey has maintained in public comments that his deputies did everything right, pointing to a review of the case last year by State Attorney Phil Archer that concluded their use of force was “entirely reasonable and justifiable.”
“Nothing that the deputies did led to (Edwards') demise. The deputies simply controlled, a very violent individual who was violently out of control,” Ivey said on WMMB’s Bill Mick Live last November.
Sheriff office reports and sworn testimony by deputies indicate Edwards was not spitting — contrary to claims by Ivey on the radio — and that the hood was applied to keep mucus produced by the pepper spray on Edwards' face from getting on deputies.
But seven months after Edwards' death — and five months before a regularly scheduled policy review — the Sheriff’s Office made changes to its policy governing the use of restraint chairs and spit hoods, records show.
The amended policy has less to do with the use of force and more to do with ensuring the safety of an inmate after deputies use force to subdue and restrain a defiant inmate — monitoring the inmate to make sure the spit hood doesn’t obstruct breathing,
Law enforcement policy consultant and expert witness Roy Bedard, who was hired by FLORIDA TODAY during the lawsuit, said spit hood manufacturers have long warned against using them in conjunction with pepper spray. In fact, instructions issued by the manufacturer of the hood used on Edwards clearly state that an inmate should not be left alone when a spit hood is in place.
“This obviously brought up a pending issue in a very, very serious way and was no longer imaginative. ... We had somebody die under these circumstances, so I think it was prudent for them to (change the policy),” Bedard told FLORIDA TODAY.
“If you have a situation that points to a manufacturer’s recommendation (of) ‘Don’t do this,’ And as a consequence, oops, we did it and somebody died or got seriously hurt, you change it then. You change it immediately.”
Bedard said the policy change was almost certainly a result of Edwards' death.
“We don’t know if any of the violations of policy ends up killing Gregory Edwards. ... We don’t know why he dies. But I think, once again, in the spirit of due diligence, you assume that perhaps that something we did was wrong and that resulted in his death,” he said.
Despite building public concern over the handling of the case and the internal investigation that found deputies had violated no policies in their use of the force against Edwards, Ivey and the Sheriff’s Office were silent on the change, quietly amending the policy with no fanfare or public announcement. It became public only after FLORIDA TODAY brought its lawsuit against the sheriff’s office to release the video.
Attorney Birk said the sheriff’s office had no reason to fear making the amendment public would be evidence of wrongdoing. People and organizations often worry that correcting defects in policies or products, or making apologies, can amount to admission of liability. But that’s just not true, he said.
“None of that can be used as evidence in a public trial,” he said. “The wisdom of barring that kind of evidence is that things will be corrected, that public safety could be improved.”
“There was no legal reason not to let the public know they had made those changes in the policy,” Birk said. “It could be evidence in the court of public opinion, but not evidence in a court of law.”