On Friday, nine deputies from the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office in Georgia were fired over the death of 22-year-old college student Matthew Ajibade, who lost his life in police custody on New Years’s Day. Ajibade was arrested after his girlfriend called police, taken to jail, and put in a restraint chair where he was later found unresponsive.
It remains unclear why Ajibade died, but the press release issued by the sheriff’s office on Friday provides some clues about what may have happened. The press release states that the sheriff’s office has instituted several new policies, including a policy on when tasers may not be used. The taser policy states, “Do not utilize any conducted electrical weapon to gain control of a detainee who is in full restraints while in a restraint chair.”
According to the Savannah Morning News:
Officers found Ajibade and his girlfriend, whose face was bruised and who had a bloody nose, according to a preliminary incident report.
Police said he would not release her and became combative when they tried to pull the couple apart. They took Ajibade to the ground and handcuffed him, according to the report.
Two sergeants came to the scene at a convenience store in the 1500 block of Abercorn and medics were called, but both the woman and Ajibade — who police say was not injured — refused treatment, according to the report.
His girlfriend told police Ajibade had been acting strangely all day, but she did not say why she thought she had been attacked. Police said Ajibade was the primary aggressor, and he was charged with battery under the Domestic Violence Act and obstruction by resisting arrest.
She gave police a plastic prescription bottle, labeled as Divalproex, that contained pills. The drug is typically used to treat certain types of seizures or bipolar disorder.
Ajibade was brought to jail where he allegedly fought with deputies, injuring three of them, which led them to put him in a restraint chair.
Ajibade’s family disputes the police report, saying his girlfriend requested that he be taken to the hospital to be treated for a manic episode related to his bipolar disorder.
The decision to fire the nine deputies comes after the completion of both an internal investigation by the sheriff’s office and an investigation by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. The results of the two investigations have been turned over to Chatham County District Attorney Meg Heap, who said she is reviewing them and expects to present the case to a grand jury next month.
As part of the investigation, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation conducted an autopsy on Ajibade’s body. Evidence also includes video from the jail. None of the information has been released to the public yet, which prompted television station WSAV to file a lawsuit for the video.
The sheriff’s office claims it cannot release information because of the pending investigation, but WSAV points out this exemption doesn’t apply to records possessed by government agencies that are under investigation. The news station has also been battling the sheriff’s office since last year over public records pertaining to the deaths of three other inmates.
On Monday, county attorneys filed an action in Chatham County Superior Court asking for a determination on what documents in the case can be made public.
Normally, Sheriff Al St. Lawrence and his agency are happy to be on camera and gives off the impression of complete transparency.
The office’s website features a behind the scenes video which begins with the producer introducing the jail’s “Corrections Emergency Response Team,” saying “They are going to beat the shit out of people and it’s going to be a lot of fun.” According to the office’s 2014 annual report, the MSNBC reality show Lockup recorded six shows at the jail between October and January which are expected to air later this year.
Ajibade’s family is being represented by attorney Mark O’Mara, who is best known for successfully defending George Zimmerman against murder charges in the Trayvon Martin case.
“Today is 128 days, and it seems as though anybody who wants to know [how Ajibade died] knows. Georgia Bureau of Investigation seems to know. The sheriff knows now and the prosecutor seems to know, but the people who deserve to know is the family and they don’t know anything at all,” O’Mara said yesterday during an appearance on CNN. “It wasn’t until we sent a letter over to them this past week demanding some action that things seemed to be moving a little bit.”
“I have a call in and a letter into Attorney General [Loretta] Lynch,” O’Mara said. “We want a special prosecutor, because this prosecutor should not be trying a case literally in her own county where they both pull from the same funding source. We need somebody independent who is going to do a good job, and no good job has been done to date.”
Not long after Ajibade’s death, the family of Matthew Loflin, another man who died after being denied medical care while in the custody of the sheriff’s office on drug charges, filed notice that they were going to sue.
Recordings of conversations between Loflin and his family show how desperate he was to receive treatment for his heart condition in the days leading up to his death:
“Why won’t they take you to the hospital?” Loflin’s father asks.
“I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know. It hurts so bad!” Loflin replies.
“I’m coughing up blood, my feet are swollen, it hurts, Mom,” he pleads to his mother in a different phone call. “I’m gonna die in here.”
Ajibade’s death also came at a time when the use of restraint chairs in Georgia’s jails was under legal scrutiny. The Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office was facing a civil rights lawsuit for allegedly misusing restraint chairs, but a judge dismissed the suit in February.
The nine deputies who were fired on Friday include Cpl. Maxine Evans, who was named Employee of the Year in 2013; Cpl. Jason Kenny; Pvt. Eric Vinson; Pvt. Abram Burns; Pvt. Christopher Reed; Pvt. Burt Ambrose; Pvt. Paul Folsome; Pvt. Frederick Burke; and Pvt. Andrew Evans-Martinez. Previously, three other deputies involved in the incident left the department. Lt. Debra Johnson retired and Greg Capers and Benjamin Webster were fired over what the sheriff’s office said were unrelated policy violations.