In aftermath of hair-pulling incident, RCSD deputies gone while supervisors remain

Updated: Jan. 28, 2021 at 6:19 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - A year after a use of force incident that involved throwing a woman to the ground by her hair, all of the Richland County Sheriff’s Department deputies listed on the scene have either been fired or resigned.

However, the deputies’ supervisors remain in positions where they may review future use of force incidents.

A WIS investigation into RCSD Defensive Action Reports, S.C. Criminal Justice Academy records, and interviews with those involved show a mixed record of discipline after the January 2020 incident.

Former Master Deputy Kyle Oliver, who was fired, now faces a third-degree assault and battery charge, and a lawsuit over the incident.

The incident on January 7.

WIS requested the defensive action reports connected to a Jan. 7, 2020 use of force by former Master Deputy Kyler Oliver on September 3.

Sheriff Leon Lott held a press conference on Sept. 2 stating Oliver was fired and arrested over his use of force in January.

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The department requires its deputies to fill out defensive action reports whenever force is used, and two reports were filed for that incident.

Oliver filed one report, and now former Deputy Casey Signorino filed the other. They both state now former Deputy Jared Free was also at the scene.

Attempts to contact Free for this story were unsuccessful.

In his defensive action report, Oliver describes the incident as “vandalism, PDC [Public Disorderly Conduct], Assault on officer” while Signorino lists the incident as an “Arrest.”

In a lawsuit filed on Sept. 23 against Oliver and the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, the attorney for Cierra Davis, the woman in the alleged hair-pulling incident, describes the interaction as follows:

“That on January 7, 2020, Plaintiff was arrested by Defendant Deputies on multiple charges which have now been fully resolved.

That on January 7, 2020, Defendant Deputies transported Plaintiff to the Region Four Headquarters for Defendant Richland located at 1019 Beatty Road in Columbia, South Carolina.

That upon arrival at Defendant Richland’s Region Four Headquarters and at all times relevant to the below detailed causes of action, Plaintiff was securely handcuffed with her hands located behind her back in said handcuffs.

That on January 7, 2020, Defendant Deputies placed Plaintiff on a bench within Defendant Richland’s Region Four Headquarters with her hands securely handcuffed behind her back.

That on January 7, 2020, Defendant Oliver became enraged with Plaintiff while she sat on the bench referenced above, approached her in a menacing and threatening manner, grasped either side of Plaintiff’s head by her hair, and proceeded to throw Plaintiff to the ground in front of the bench.

That on January 7, 2020, Defendant Deputies observed the above detailed actions of Defendant Oliver and took no action whatsoever to prevent Defendant Oliver from engaging in this conduct. Furthermore, Defendant Deputies did not render aid to Plaintiff, did not report Defendant Oliver’s behavior to any authority whatsoever, and otherwise assisted Defendant Oliver in his attempt to injure Plaintiff as a result of Defendant Oliver’s inability to control his emotions.

That on January 7, 2020, Defendant Oliver and Defendant Deputies degraded Plaintiff through the use of profane, vile, insulting, and otherwise inappropriate comments related to her womanhood, her femininity, her character, her mental state, and her personhood.

That on January 7, 2020, neither Defendant Oliver nor Defendant Deputies offered Plaintiff any medical treatment for her injuries prior to taking her to the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center where she was incarcerated for multiple days prior to being able to make bond.”

Oliver’s defense attorney in that lawsuit did not provide a comment on this story despite multiple requests.

Signorino said she arrested Davis for damaging her boyfriend’s property.

“[The boyfriend] said she took off on foot, gave me a clothing description down to the detail of her shirt, what was on her shirt, so I knew it was her when I found her trying to walk away from the scene,” she said.

Signorino said she couldn’t control Davis, so she placed her in handcuffs, resulting in Davis screaming. She said she transported the woman to the Region Four Headquarters on Beatty Road, where traditionally suspects sit on a metal bench while their paperwork is processed.

“I told her to sit down on the bench, and she didn’t, and I told her to sit down on the bench, she didn’t,” Signorino said.

Signorino said Davis gave her “verbal defiance” and spat on her, so she attempted to handcuff the woman’s hands to the bench.

“I reached behind her to take another pair of handcuffs, to handcuff her to the back of the bench so I was behind her whenever I went to do that,” Signorino said. “That’s whenever she took her head and she threw it back and she head-butted me right on the side of my temple.”

Signorino said she saw “stars” after being head-butted. She said when she “came to” the woman was still throwing her head against the wall, and Oliver walked over.

“That’s whenever Oliver grabbed her by the head, which she was using as a weapon,” she said. “That’s what we’re trained to do, control the weapon. Whatever it is, if it’s your hands control the hands, if it’s a gun control the gun. This incident was her head, so he grabbed her by the head, and put her to the ground.”

Signorino said she then helped Oliver control Davis while she was on the ground until she relaxed.

Both Oliver and Signorino listed “Verbal noncompliance” and “Defensive Resistance” on their defensive action reports to describe the woman’s behavior.

Under defensive action, Oliver wrote the “Subject (sic) tensed muscles, stood up, refused to sit.” For defensive action, Signorino wrote “Pushed against officer’s hands while attempting to detain her on the bench inside Region 4 HQ.”

In Oliver’s defensive action report, he noted that Davis headbutted Signorino.

Signorino makes no mention of the headbutt in her report, later telling WIS the head-butt came after the force she was reporting.

In the aftermath of Oliver’s force, Signorino said she cursed at the suspect. In her report, Signorino notes that she was not injured. She said Oliver should “absolutely not” have been charged.

“I can understand why they might want to retrain him, I can understand why they might want to give him some sort of reprimand for what he did, I don’t think losing his job and I absolutely don’t think what he did was assault and battery,” she said.

She said she did not think the incident needed to be reported, and that the supervisors involved viewed the body-camera footage.

Sheriff Leon Lott said he called the Sept. 2 press conference after receiving a tip that the department ought to re-examine the body camera footage from a source outside the department.

In the press conference, he said Oliver’s defensive action report did not line up with body camera footage, and that department supervisors should have cross-referenced them.

“Should have been done...That’s an existing policy. It should have been done and I’ll tell you, in this case, it wasn’t done, and that’s what I have to address. Why it wasn’t done? Was there a failure on supervisors to be a leader and a supervisor?” he said.

He announced an internal investigation into the incident.

Both defensive action reports from the Jan. 7 hair-pulling incident show Capt. Michael Pearson signed off as Region Commander, and named Cpl. John Parker as the supervisor who responded to the scene.

In his Jan. 7 defensive action report, Oliver lists his force as follows:

  • Verbal Direction: “Stop” “Quit” “Will you please behave” “Roll on your side”
  • Hard Empty Hand Control, with “Muscling Technique”

Lott described muscling technique as “when you use muscles to get control of someone” which can include holding or grabbing a suspect.

Oliver’s only other comment in his report regarding his force reads “After force was applied, subject (sic) was able to be controlled without further incident.”

On the next page of Oliver’s report, neither Pearson nor Parker left a comment suggesting any wrongdoing. Pearson marked “Reviewed, No action warranted” on Oliver’s report, while Parker left no comments.

In a Dec. 9 interview, Sheriff Leon Lott confirmed Pearson and Parker are both still with the department and in positions where they could be a part of future defensive action report reviews.

Lott said Parker retained his rank as Corporal and will still be “in that chain” that reviews defensive action reports.

“We’ve looked at the big picture on a lot of people, we’ve made changes, we have moved people around, people are not in the same positions. I’m not going to go through everything single thing that we did, but we’ve addressed it,” he said. “We admitted our mistakes, we’ve made some mistakes and we’re fixing them.”

Lott also confirmed Pearson is still with the department. RCSD spokesperson Maj. Maria Yturria later confirmed Pearson retained the rank of Captain. However, he is no longer a region commander.

Lott told WIS that he and Pearson “talked about it,” but would not go into detail.

“These are personnel issues that we’ve dealt with, and we’ve made changes to address them,” he said.

Lott said it’s a “possibility” that Pearson could review defensive action reports moving forward. Signorino said both Parker and Pearson watched the body camera footage of the Jan. 7 incident, because she talked with them about it afterward.

“My language in the video was addressed in a verbal reprimand, verbal reprimands normally aren’t documented,” she said.

Signorino said she never questioned either Pearson or Parker’s professional ethics and she said she has no reason to believe they mishandled the reports. Lott said his department reviewed all of Oliver’s defensive action reports and found no other issues.

As part of the investigation, WIS requested all of Kyle Oliver’s defensive action reports. The reports show Parker served as Oliver’s supervisor for 11 defensive action reports from April 2018 through March 2020. The reports show Pearson signed off as Region Commander on 18 of Oliver’s defensive action reports from November 2019 through July 2020.

WIS reached out to the department to speak with Parker and Pearson. Both declined.

Oliver’s defensive action report lists two other deputies who were on scene during the Jan. 7 incident. It names Jared Free and Casey Signorino, neither of whom are still with the department.

The S.C. Criminal Justice Academy keeps running files on law enforcement officers in South Carolina and lists reasons for termination.

Oliver’s file shows he was fired on Sept. 1.

The file reads:

“Termination INVOLVING MISCONDUCT as defined by S.C. Code Section 23-23-150 and/or S.C. Code of Regulations 37-025.

CJA’s file on Jared Free shows he resigned on July 11, roughly seven weeks before Lott’s press conference. It only lists “resignation” as Free’s reason for separating from the department. At the time of his resignation, Free was not facing any criminal investigation or charges.

It shows Free joined the department in August 2018.

WIS could not reach him for comment.

Signorino’s file shows she joined the department in June 2019 and the department fired her on Sept. 9, which was one week after Lott’s press conference. The file states she was fired for violating department policy, and elaborated by stating she had “substandard work performance” and “rudeness.”

Signorino said the Chief Deputy who fired her said “they didn’t like the language in the video.”

“I was never given the opportunity to go make an [Internal Affairs] statement, nobody had any idea what happened from my end,” she said.

At the time of the Dec. 15 interview with WIS, Signorino said she did not know about the comments put on her CJA report.

“This is what I’ve worked my whole life for. For one situation where I was rude to someone who just assaulted me in a pretty severe way. I was mentally incapacitated for a short period of time, that one reaction completely canceled out every good thing that I’ve done,” she said.

She said the CJA comments will likely keep her from being hired as a law enforcement officer in the future.

“For them to say that I’m ‘substandard’ is incorrect. It’s just point-blank incorrect,” she said.

Signorino said she does not think Pearson nor Parker did anything wrong when reviewing the Jan. 7 incident but questioned Lott’s personnel decisions given his public statements.

“If you’re going to name them as at fault, why do they still have job security and I’m struggling to pay my mortgage? If they violated policy by not reporting this incident, the supervisors didn’t uphold their duties as a supervisor.”

He said: “I think that the public can have confidence in what we do. We admitted that we made mistakes and I think the public has confidence in me to fix those mistakes and we’ve made changes, we’ve made quite a few changes, and improved what we’ve done. I think the public understands we’re going to do that and that’s what we’ve done.”

Signorino said the fallout of the incident damages Lott’s relationship with deputies.

“The way he is treating his deputies now, especially in this incident, the way that he’s treated me, the way that he’s treated Oliver, is so disheartening and that’s an understatement,” she said.

Lott did give some details on other changes within the department in the aftermath of the press conference.

He said some personnel were fired and others were moved into different positions. He could not give a number as to how many changes were made.

CJA records show that from the Sept. 1 firing of Oliver through late November, 29 employees at RCSD had either been fired, retired, or voluntarily left. Including Oliver, five employees were fired in that time frame.

Lott said at least one member of the internal affairs unit was disciplined for failing to look at the report and video. He said the IA unit now has a new Deputy Chief overseeing operations, and the body camera program will now be operated out of the unit.

“We have more than one eye that’s looking at body cams and use of force reports,” he said.

Lott said the department has also worked with the solicitor’s office and the public defender’s office to notify the department that if the attorneys find something worth reporting, they contact the department.

Court records show Oliver pleaded not guilty and requested a jury trial over his criminal charges in October. Court records do not show that it has been scheduled.

Oliver’s defense attorney for the criminal trial did not return a request for comment.

The lawsuit over the Jan. 7 incident is currently in Federal Court, where a judge ordered both sides to complete a discovery report by mid-February.

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