Arnold Reeves stood in a holding cell at North Charleston City Hall on Aug. 13 and tried to get a police officer’s attention.
After appearing in municipal court that morning on a charge of marijuana possession, the 49-year-old complained that the handcuffs on his wrists were too tight. His ankles also were shackled.
What happened next resulted in the firing of Pfc. Abraham Montes-Altamirano after North Charleston Police Department internal investigators found that he used excessive force for the second time in less than a year.
Police spokesman Spencer Pryor did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday after Reeves’ attorney released video and documents about the incident.
Montes-Altamirano yanked Reeves from the cell, which contained other inmates awaiting transportation back to the county jail.
Reeves’ hands had been cuffed in front of him, but Montes-Altamirano wanted them switched to the back. After a co-worker unlocked the handcuffs, Montes-Altamirano twisted the man’s left arm behind his back, according to video of the encounter. (Click here to watch the video.)
That’s when, according to Reeves’ attorneys, his arm was dislocated.
“Stop resisting,” Montes- Altamirano yelled, according to documents from the internal probe.
Other officers told investigators that Reeves hadn’t been putting up a fight. Montes-Altamirano said he wanted to assert control over the situation so that Reeves wouldn’t attack him.
The scuffle spilled into a second cell, where Montes-Altamirano aimed to isolate Reeves from the other prisoners.
The video showed the officer jabbing his knee into Reeves’ back, pinning the man to a concrete bench. Reeves’ attorneys said he suffered bashes that caused bruises on his forehead and an eye.
At some point, Reeves defecated in his black-and-white striped jail garb.
Montes-Altamirano continued to shout at the prisoner, creating a commotion that caught other officers’ attention. One walked in, grabbed Montes-Altamirano by an arm.
“I got this,” Montes-Altamirano said.
“I got this,” the officer responded.
After several pleas from a co-worker, according to the documents, Montes-Altamirano let go of Reeves and walked out of the cell.
Reeves shouted about police brutality and complained of dizziness. A half-hour after Reeves was pulled from a cell, Montes-Altamirano returned and loosened the prisoner’s handcuffs.
Montes-Altamirano was fired Aug. 26 after the internal investigation revealed that no force was needed that day, according to documents released by Reeves’ attorney, Joseph Weston of Mount Pleasant. He had been with the department since November 2009.
Though no criminal probe has been started in the case, it prompted talk of a civil lawsuit against the police department for the second time as a result of an incident involving Montes-Altamirano.
Weston said Reeves, whose marijuana charge was later dropped, still complains of pain and eyesight problems.
His criminal record shows convictions for breach of trust, grand larceny and crack cocaine possession.
He had faced a charge of resisting arrest in 2005, but his attorney said he’s not a violent man and did nothing to provoke Montes-Altamirano.
“He’s been having problems with his memory since then,” Weston said. “He has nightmares.”
Montes-Altamirano and Officer Doug Armstead were targeted in a State Law Enforcement Division inquiry after their arrest in November of 22-year-old James Cannon of Hanahan.
Cannon suffered facial fractures, a broken nose, an injured eye and a dislocated shoulder.
The SLED probe resulted in no criminal charges against Montes-Altamirano or Armstead. Agency spokesman Thom Berry said the case was closed in March.
But that same month, a document showed that the police department gave Montes- Altamirano a two-week unpaid suspension for excessive force during an arrest.
Pryor would not say whether the suspension was connected with Cannon’s arrest.
Cannon’s attorney, David Aylor, said he’s pursuing litigation in the case, though no lawsuit has been filed.
“We’re still moving forward with it,” Aylor said. “We still contend that excessive force was used against our client.”
In the case last year, Montes-Altamirano reported that he was trying to arrest Cannon for trespassing on railroad property when the young man charged him. Armstead managed to slap handcuffs around one of Cannon’s wrists, but Montes-Altamirano reported that he feared for his life when Cannon started swinging and using the handcuffs as a weapon.
‘I’m in control’
Montes-Altamirano described similar fears when internal investigators questioned him about the most recent episode.
While other officers reported seeing no trouble from Reeves that day, Montes-Altamirano said the man started getting other inmates in his cell riled up about his handcuffs being too tight.
“He was causing problems by making them complain too,” Montes-Altamirano told investigators.
Other officers had heard Reeves’ complaints and told him that they’d help him when they got a chance. But those officers said Montes-Altamirano took exception to that.
“You can’t jump at everything they tell you to do,” he said, according to the account one officer gave. “You gotta show them who’s in control.”
Reeves started banging on the cell door, trying to get someone’s attention.
Montes-Altamirano grabbed the keys to the cell and unlocked it.
The officer first pinned Reeves against a counter where an officer was doing paperwork. Montes-Altamirano used what officers said was an “iron wrist” takedown to counter Reeves’ attempts to pull away.
Montes-Altamirano told the prisoner to stop putting up a fight.
“I stopped,” Reeves said, according to another officer. “I stopped. I stopped.”
While Montes-Altamirano acknowledged that Reeves began to relax, he said the prisoner continued to argue.
Montes-Altamirano worried about recent incidents in which prisoners were found with drugs even after being searched. He thought Reeves could have a weapon, so he continued using the “pain compliance” methods he had effectively employed on the streets, he said.
“I like to do it to a certain level when I know I’m in control,” he told investigators. “I always try to put them in a very (uncomfortable position), not painful.”
As Montes-Altamirano escorted him to a new cell, Reeves lost a shoe.
During the walk, Reeves later told his attorney, he was slammed against a wall.
But no officers reported that, and they denied seeing Reeves suffer significant head trauma.
An officer who had heard the commotion tried to defuse the situation.
But Montes-Altamirano used his right index finger to point at Reeves’ face as he yelled.
“He was not actively resisting,” the other officer said of the prisoner. “He was not fighting with any officers.”
After that officer asked him to leave, Montes-Altamirano walked through the door. On the way out, he kicked Reeves’ shoe back into the cell.
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.