Cass jail sergeant pepper-sprayed inmate, resigns after report finds he used excessive force
FARGO – The senior sergeant at the Cass County Jail recently resigned after an internal investigation found he used excessive force when he pepper-sprayed an inmate in the hand and face while the inmate was strapped to a restraint chair.
In a separate incident two days earlier, a corporal at the jail unnecessarily used his Taser on an inmate while the inmate was on his stomach and other officers “had gained sufficient control over the inmate,” according to personnel complaints and disciplinary records obtained by The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead from the Cass County Sheriff’s Office.
While use of force complaints are infrequent at the jail – records show there have been five in the past 5½ years – such incidents are taken seriously, Sheriff Paul Laney said Thursday.
“We hold our people very, very accountable when they do use force,” he said.
An internal affairs investigation into the March 18 pepper spray incident concluded that Sgt. Lyndon Worden used “inappropriate and unreasonable” force under the circumstances.
Worden doesn’t dispute what happened but claims he was targeted for dismissal because he questioned the sheriff.
His lieutenant, captain and chief deputy all recommended Worden be fired. The lieutenant also recommended the case be referred to the Cass County State’s Attorney’s Office for consideration of assault charges, but prosecutor Tanya Johnson Martinez said the case was not sent up for review and was dealt with as an excessive force issue.
Laney concurred with the firing recommendation. His office’s Response to Resistance Committee, which reviews use of force incidents, ruled the force used by Worden was “excessive” and didn’t comply with office standards.
Worden resigned by email on May 9, hours before his scheduled termination meeting with Laney.
In his report, Laney wrote that “the use of OC (pepper) spray against a defenseless and restrained inmate is unconscionable. The actions of Sgt. Worden have placed the Cass County Sheriff’s Office and Cass County Government as a whole in a very precarious and liable situation with the inmate and with the public.”
“The trust of our public that inmates who enter our facility will be safe from abuse is critical to our success as an organization,” he wrote. “The act by Sgt. Worden damages that trust.”
Laney noted Worden was a use-of-force instructor at the time of the incident and had been for many years.
“There is no way he couldn’t have known that his behavior and his actions were completely out of line with the policies and procedures of the Sheriff’s Office,” Laney wrote.
The sheriff said Thursday he hadn’t heard from the inmate or his attorney about a possible lawsuit against the county, but added, “It won’t surprise me if we do.”
‘Cheap shot’ or not?
Worden, who spent 24 years with the sheriff’s office, the last 13 as a sergeant, said Laney’s report didn’t tell the whole story and that the sheriff used the incident as an excuse to get rid of him because he questioned Laney’s decision-making in the past.
“We had kind of a personality conflict, per se, so this was not really as much about that (pepper spray incident) as it was, ‘OK, here’s something I can get him on now,’ ” Worden said in a phone interview Thursday.
Laney, also speaking by phone on his way back to Fargo from the North Dakota Peace Officers Association’s annual conference in Minot, called that assertion “a cheap shot.” He said while there were concerns about Worden’s leadership abilities, the pepper spray incident alone led to his firing.
“For him to say that I was gunning for his career is absolutely ludicrous,” he said.
While they don’t agree on what discipline it warranted, Worden and Laney do agree on what happened March 18 at the jail:
The inmate involved, Jonathan Edward Brady, 31, had pleaded guilty that morning to felony terrorizing and misdemeanor menacing. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison at the James River Correctional Center in Jamestown, with 124 days of credit for time served.
After Brady was brought back to his jail housing unit, he got into a fight and had to be taken to a more secure area of the jail. Worden said Brady was “all wound up,” trying to break sprinkler heads, throwing toilet water and trying to destroy his cell. Officers convinced him to calm down by shooting pepper spray through the cell’s food port.
Jail staff handcuffed Brady, strapped him to the restraint chair, put a spit mask on him and wheeled him to the unit’s gymnasium, where the chair was tied to a steel bench.
Worden, the jail’s operations sergeant, assigned an officer to stay and videotape Brady. Worden went back to his office and another fight broke out requiring officers to respond. The officer videotaping Brady left his post to respond to the fight. When it was over, Worden walked by the gymnasium and saw no one inside with Brady, who he said was “rocking back and forth as hard as he could and screaming at the top of his lungs.”
Worden said he went inside and tried to calm Brady down as Brady used his feet to bang the restraint chair against the steel bench. Worden said he tried to get Brady to stop by moving the chair forward and tightening his restraints, but Brady continued. Worden said he then put himself between the chair and the bench to try to keep Brady from damaging the chair.
“Then he continued to hit against me,” Worden said.
‘I got played’
The only person to witness part of the incident was another officer who gave Worden a can of pepper spray but then left the room. Worden said he kept talking to Brady, asking him to stop, but he wouldn’t comply.
“It didn’t happen in 15 seconds where all of a sudden I decided to spray him. I talked to him for a while,” Worden said.
“So I said, ‘OK, here’s the deal, if you don’t stop, I’m going to pepper spray you on the hand.’ Is that how we train? No. I took full responsibility for that. But I didn’t do it to – the sheriff says I did it to terrorize him or I did it to escalate the situation. That’s not why I did it. Would I rather spray the guy in the face or spray the guy in the hand? So, that was my logic. Don’t just pepper spray. Go up one level. I could have used physical force, but I didn’t think that was appropriate.”
When Brady still wouldn’t comply, Worden said he warned him that he would pepper-spray him in the face. He said he ultimately pepper-sprayed Brady on the forehead, then removed the spit mask – against Brady’s objections – to make sure he could breathe. Worden said he immediately started decontamination, washing off Brady’s face and blowing a fan on him.
Worden said one of his officers later witnessed Brady tell staff at the state prison that Brady did what he did to get to the prison faster because he was sick of being at the Cass County Jail.
“And so his actions were planned,” Worden said. “So I guess you could say I got played.”
Laney echoed that sentiment, saying, “In a sense, he got played.”
“(Brady) was pretty worked up that day, and he was certainly … goading the sergeant into it, and the sergeant went there, and that’s the problem,” Laney said. “We deal with these kinds of people all the time. We’re not supposed to let them get to us like that.”
Brady was transferred to the Jamestown prison March 22. His estimated release date is March 8, 2014.
Brady’s public defender in the criminal case, Gordon Dexheimer, said through a representative that he had no comment on Brady’s case. Brady could not be reached for comment, as the prison does not accept phone messages for inmates.
‘I feel disgraced’
Worden, 53, said he’d never had a use-of-force complaint filed against him before, which Laney confirmed. And while he sat on the use-of-force committee and was a Taser instructor, Worden clarified that he wasn’t a use-of-force instructor.
Worden said he was “a good officer” who was given a lot of responsibility. He noted that between the pepper spray incident and his resignation, he wasn’t placed on administrative leave and, in fact, was given more responsibility.
Laney said his office will put complaint subjects on administrative leave if they believe having the person continue to work will be detrimental to the jail’s operations, but he said that wasn’t the case with Worden. He also noted that at the time, the sheriff’s office was gearing up to fight a potential major spring flood and resources were spread thin.
“Did we feel in this case that he was going to be walking the halls beating the inmates? No,” he said.
But Laney said Worden “made a decision that there was no turning back from.”
“It didn’t give me any pleasure to tell a 24-year deputy that your career is over, but he took us down that path, he made those decisions, and I’m just not one that’s going to tolerate that kind of behavior,” he said. “We have too much public trust at stake.”
An attorney representing Worden in the disciplinary case wrote in a letter dated May 8, the day before he resigned, that he believed firing Worden would be motivated by his age and impending retirement, not the severity of the violation.
In the interview Thursday, Worden said he was a few years from retirement and feels his firing was improper. He’s looking for another job with a retirement plan, which is difficult given what’s now in his personnel file, he said.
“I feel disgraced. I feel discredited for the wrong reasons. Does everybody know really what happened? No. But he’s made it look like I was this big monster, and that’s tough,” he said.
Adding awkwardness to the situation was the fact that Worden’s wife, Heather Worden, is administrative assistant to the Cass County Commission.
“I’m not going to tell you it hasn’t made it a little frostier in the commission room, in that sense,” Laney said. But he quickly added that Heather Worden has been “the consummate professional.”
In the Taser incident, according to a complaint filed March 24, Cpl. Gene Lindemann used his Taser March 16 during the intake search of an inmate who was on his stomach with his legs being held by one deputy and upper torso by another.
An internal investigation found that the other officers “had gained sufficient control over the inmate, making the additional use of the Taser unnecessary, despite the fact that the Taser is a lower level of force than what had already been applied by other officers.”
The Office of Professional Standards sustained the complaint July 2, and Laney concurred, issued a two-day suspension and required Lindemann to complete mandatory response-to-resistance training. Lindemann must serve the suspension days on Aug. 22 and Sept. 10.
Capt. Judy Tollefson, who oversees the jail, wrote in her recommendation for a two-day suspension and retraining that “Gene is a senior officer and should have a solid understanding of procedure relating to use of force.”
A woman who answered the phone at the jail said Lindemann wasn’t working Thursday. Lindemann didn’t return a phone message left at his listed home number.
Laney said people make mistakes, and he believes Lindemann has learned from the incident.
“I really, truly believe next time around he’ll look at that from a different perspective … and he’ll be a better deputy for it,” he said.
In the three other use-of-force complaints found in a review of records:
• Correctional Officer Kris Kevorkian allegedly used unnecessary force on Sept. 11, 2011, by grabbing the handcuffs an inmate was wearing and firmly pulling the inmate into the cell door window and his hands through the food port, causing injury.
The complaint was sustained, but Kevorkian received no discipline. A note written by Laney in the file stated: “I do believe this needs to be addressed through training. Based on the interviews, I believe Deputy Kevorkian was firm but I don’t believe it was his intent to harm the inmate or utilize force. (The inmate) also has some culpability here as I believe he is passive aggressive in his behavior with our staff.”
• Kevorkian was the subject of a use of force allegation involving an inmate in a jail pod on March 12, 2010. The OPS investigation found that the use of force was appropriate for the situation and that the inmate brought it on by his actions, but that the entire situation could have been avoided if Kevorkian had closed the door to the pod and called for backup.
• An inmate complained a day or two after being moved to a different cell block in September 2011 that he had marks on him from force used by a jailer. The jailer was exonerated.