Video shows sheriff using manual force, but sheriff says it's not the whole story

A copy of a video obtained by The Anniston Star appears to show Calhoun County Sheriff Larry Amerson using manual force on a juvenile male during an interview at the county jail.

A source requesting anonymity gave the video footage to The Star Wednesday. The video appears to have been taken from a surveillance camera located in a room at the Calhoun County Jail.

During an interview Wednesday, Amerson acknowledged a video shows him during what he said was “a talk” with a juvenile male. But Amerson stressed he couldn’t comment about any other aspect of that interaction. That’s not because he has something to hide, Amerson said, but because it would be unlawful to discuss a matter that might become a juvenile case.

“On the record I will say this: That we have a pending criminal case against an unnamed juvenile. In that case, there was video evidence,” the sheriff said. “As in all cases where we have evidence, video or otherwise, that video was turned over to the DA’s (district attorney’s) office, and no effort to hide or destroy any evidence has occurred.”

The video provided to The Star runs about two-and-a-half minutes long and shows what appears to be a room at the jail. In the center of the camera’s lens, at the back of the room, sits a boy dressed in the orange-and-white jumpsuit worn by jail inmates. The boy’s wrists and ankles are shackled. Amerson sits on the bench to the boy’s left.

The video, which has no sound, shows Amerson addressing Jail Administrator Eric Starr and two other men, one of whom is dressed as a deputy. Those three men leave and pull the door behind them.

After a moment of what appears to be conversation between the sheriff and the boy, Amerson grabs him by his left shoulder, gets up off the bench, leans over him and forces his head back by pushing on his chin. He holds the boy that way for several seconds. The video shows the sheriff sitting back down, then about a minute later using both arms, one at the boy’s shirt collar, to pull him backward against the wall.

LaJuana Davis, a criminal law and procedure expert at Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law, watched the video Wednesday and called Amerson’s actions a violation of the boy’s rights.

“I would characterize this as an outrageous assault on a cuffed and shackled person,” Davis said in an email statement. “First, whatever the young person said to the sheriff, even if it was offensive, there will be no excuse for a law enforcement officer choking a shackled person without justification.”

Tallapoosa County District Attorney Paul Jones said there are sometimes circumstances where it would be permissible and even necessary to use physical force against a person who is shackled or restrained.

“If they’re in a process of moving a guy where he’s kicking or biting an officer, I would think there would be a circumstance where an officer could use force,” said Jones, who had not seen the video and did not wish to comment specifically on Amerson’s situation. “I’ve even seen them (people) where they were shackled, and I’ve seen them come out the back window of the police car.”

But Davis said in this case, there is no exception to the rule.

“In the video, the inmate makes no physical moves or threatening gestures toward the sheriff,” Davis said.

Amerson wouldn’t clarify when the talk with the juvenile took place but said Starr turned the tape over to the Calhoun County District Attorney’s office sometime in March.

Amerson, who serves as the second vice president for the National Sheriff’s Association, refused to comment specifically on the video or on the juvenile shown in the video.

“I’m not authorized to discuss it, because of the nature of the event and because there is a pending criminal case, not on me,” Amerson said.

But, in general, the sheriff said, “I would not hurt a child.”

Amerson wouldn’t talk about why the boy shown in the video was dressed in a jumpsuit, wearing handcuffs and leg shackles. Again, in general, Amerson said, no juveniles are ever booked into the county jail. If a juvenile is at the jail and wearing an inmate jumpsuit, he or she is there at the request of their parents.

As part of a program to teach a lesson to high-risk kids — those who skip school, misbehave or commit crimes — without sending them to juvenile detention facilities, parents can sign waivers to allow their children to work in the county jail during the school day, said an employee with Family Links, Inc., the local children’s behavior task force.

The employee, Meshika Ball, said parents sign their children into the jail at 8 a.m. and pick them up at 3:30 p.m. The children in the program do not interact with inmates, Ball said. Instead, they provide menial labor for the jail, such as taking out the trash.

Amerson said that it’s policy to restrain a juvenile who is causing trouble while he’s on jail premises.

“When the kids misbehave, we talk to them.” Amerson said. “These kids are not victims, witnesses or suspects. They are out-of-control children or they wouldn’t be here.”

The sheriff also questioned the context of the video, noting that a two-and-half minute clip of video footage that lasted for hours would hardly give a full, accurate account of what happened.

“That video was several hours long and the events that went on were,” Amerson said. He said it would be improper to characterize anybody’s actions in the video simply by viewing a slice of it.

The sheriff said the jail’s surveillance system runs all the time and can only be reviewed or accessed by himself or Starr. He said the cameras are in place to document what happens in the jail and that he is aware where the cameras are located and when they are turned on.

Davis listed a number of actions the juvenile shown in the video could take against Amerson if he so chose.

State tort action for assault, a civil suit for constitutional violations of the right to be free from excessive force while in police custody and even criminal, police misconduct charges are among the boy’s legal options, Davis said.

Still, Amerson insists that whatever the video depicts is not the full or accurate story.

And Jones, the Tallapoosa County DA who did not wish to be informed about Amerson’s specific situation, cautioned against hasty conclusions based on limited facts.

“Neither you nor I may have every bit of information about the circumstances that existed at that time, until we’ve gotten the information from everybody involved,” Jones said.

Star staff writer Cameron Steele: 256-235-3562.