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SLED: No charges against Charleston officer who oversaw arrest of man who died in custody

Nathaniel Rhodes03.jpg (copy)

Nathaniel Rhodes leans back as he talks with EMTs at the Charleston police station for a sobriety test after being involved in an accident on August, 12, 2018. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

A former Charleston police officer will not face criminal charges in connection with the in-custody death of a DUI suspect last summer. 

Nathaniel Rhodes, 58, died four days after he was involved in a two-vehicle crash on Aug. 12, 2018, in downtown Charleston.

His official cause of death: blunt force trauma to the abdomen, according to a State Law Enforcement Division report released Wednesday after a nearly four-month investigation into the Charleston Police Department's handling of the case.

An internal police investigation, also released Wednesday, concluded the arresting officer, Paul Kelly, violated department policy and "did not prioritize the safety, health and well-being of Mr. Rhodes."

On May 24, Kelly was demoted to a non-sworn position within the department, according to a copy of a police administrative review that was also released Wednesday. A non-sworn position means Kelly does not carry a gun or badge, but is still employed by the department. 

"Officer Kelly provided no statement and refused to be interviewed," according to the SLED report. 

Charleston Police Chief Luther Reynolds identified Kelly's new job duties as crime scene forensics. 

In addition to studying the events that led up to Rhodes' death, the SLED report detailed how two video files from Kelly's body camera were mislabeled and automatically deleted. The loss of the video, which is believed to have contained footage of Kelly's interactions with Rhodes at the crash site, led to questions over police handling of video records.

Reforms

The incident and subsequent investigation have led to three main areas of reform within the department, according to Reynolds. What happened in Rhodes' case is contrary to law enforcement's mission to protect life and help people, the chief said. 

"In this case, we could have done better," he added. 

The first set of reforms concerns body camera video footage.

In Kelly's case, two video clips were mislabeled and grouped with dashboard camera footage categorized as an accidental recording, according to SLED's report. Accidental recordings would have been grouped separately from the rest of the footage and automatically deleted after 30 days.

An internal audit of the department’s body camera policy and procedures was completed and videos will now be retained for 180 days, the chief said. The lengthier retention of all body camera video should give officers more time to catch mistakes that could lead to videos being lost, mislabeled or deleted too soon. 

Second, police officers will no longer sign forms as witnesses if a patient declines medical transport in an ambulance, Reynolds said.

After Kelly got to the crash scene, he found an open container of alcohol in Rhodes' vehicle, conducted a field sobriety test and placed Rhodes under arrest, according to the SLED report.

Rhodes had asked to be taken to a hospital and at least one of the emergency medical services personnel at the scene "didn't know what to do since Rhodes was in the custody of law enforcement."

The EMS personnel told Kelly that Rhodes needed to be transported to a hospital, to which Kelly responded that he "had gotten burned once on a DUI charge and he wasn't letting Rhodes out of his sight," SLED's report states. 

Ambulance personnel told Kelly to sign a form refusing medical transport on behalf of Rhodes, the report stated. The officer signed his own name on a line marked "patient or guardian." 

Up until this incident, officers regularly signed this kind of form as witnesses to a patient's refusal to be transported, Reynolds said, but no officer he had spoken with was aware of any other instances in which an officer signed a refusal form on behalf of a patient. 

"We no longer sign those forms in any capacity," the chief said. 

The final reform encompasses ongoing training on body camera practices, Reynolds said. Officers have undergone additional training on how to tag videos, and supervisors are being taught how to properly audit video records and check for footage that might be misplaced, mislabeled, lost or otherwise in need of recategorizing.

Andy Savage, Kelly's attorney, praised the chief's handling of the case and said officers face intense pressures in the field and have to make tough decision without time to reflect on or study the issue at hand. 

In DUI cases, there is a limited amount of time to administer a breath-based blood alcohol test to a suspect, Savage said. Tests using a suspect's blood or urine samples require a warrant. 

Reynolds could have fired Kelly but did not, the attorney said, further describing his client as someone who was well-regarded among officers. 

"I believe (Kelly) wants a career in law enforcement," Savage said. "This is a bump in the road. He’ll be a better police officer than he was before this happened."

Chain of events

In the collision, Rhodes suffered at least eight broken ribs and a lacerated liver. He was being treated in an ambulance when officers arrived at the crash site.

When Kelly approached the other vehicle involved in the crash, he acknowledged a U.S. Marines sticker on the truck while speaking to the driver, according to the report.

"Semper Fi," Kelly told him, according to the report. "We'll take care of you."

After Kelly found an open container of alcohol in Rhodes' vehicle, he was asked to take field sobriety tests. SLED's report notes that Rhodes was able to exit the ambulance "on his own strength" in order to take the tests, which he failed. 

Kelly then took Rhodes to a booking facility so that a blood-alcohol test could be administered. Upon their arrival, Rhodes collapsed after getting out of the police cruiser. In SLED's report, an officer notes that Rhodes did not fall but was instead lowered to the ground after losing the strength to stand. 

He was later transported to a hospital after his condition continued to worsen when he was taken inside the booking facility, video of the incident shows. He died four days later.

Charleston police released body camera footage related to the case on Feb. 26 — more than 6 months after the initial incident. 

In the first of two body camera videos, Kelly and another officer stand above Rhodes, who is lying on the ground outside a booking facility. Rhodes, with his hands handcuffed behind his back, complained about the heat and not being able to walk.

“There’s air conditioning right in there,” Kelly states. “You’ve just got to walk with us to get there, sir.”

He and another officer hoist Rhodes to his feet and lead him into the room where they prepare him for the blood alcohol test, the video shows.

The test was never completed.

He was taken to Medical University Hospital after EMS personnel arrived to the booking site.

In the second video, Rhodes lies injured in a hospital bed as Kelly goes through paperwork.

“This has been a ridiculous week for DUI,” the officer said to a hospital staffer who was present. “This guy makes three for me.”

Kelly continues to speak to Rhodes, who appears unresponsive to his voice, according to the footage. The officer also told Rhodes that the blood alcohol analysis was not conclusive because the test ended before the analysis could be concluded, when Rhodes was taken to the hospital.

After stating the charges against him, the officer asks Rhodes to sign a document.

“I can’t sign,” Rhodes said weakly.

Moving forward

After Rhodes' death, the release of body camera footage, and acknowledgement by Reynolds that two pieces of video had been mislabeled and deleted, calls for change came swiftly.

Attorneys Justin Bamberg and Christy Fargnoli are representing Rhodes' family members and in February publicly called on the police department to release information and other materials related to the case. 

"The bottom line is that if this officer had placed Mr. Rhodes' safety above his own selfish interests, this family would likely be sharing happy times with their loved one right now," the attorneys said in a joint statement Wednesday. "Our hope is that this incident results in dramatic changes to the way the Charleston Police Department deals with the citizens its officers are sworn to protect."

For Reynolds, he said it is essential for the department to balance the need to address serious problems like impaired drivers with treating everyone with dignity and respect.

Impaired driving is a major public safety threat in Charleston and South Carolina as a whole, the chief said. It is an issue that the public has expressed concern about and police have made efforts to step up enforcement. But officers have a responsibility to master their craft, Reynolds said. 

"We need to know what wise decision-making is," the chief said Wednesday. "If DUI enforcement is a priority, what training do we need to do? We need to equip our officers with the best equipment. ... We have to provide good leadership."

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Reach Gregory Yee at 843-937-5908. Follow him on Twitter @GregoryYYee.

Gregory Yee covers breaking news and public safety. He's a native Angeleno and previously covered crime and courts for the Press-Telegram in Long Beach, CA. He studied journalism and Spanish literature at the University of California, Irvine.

Michael Majchrowicz is a reporter covering crime and public safety. He previously wrote about courts for the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, Massachusetts. A Hoosier native, he graduated from Indiana University with a degree in journalism.

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