A screenshot from body-worn camera footage shows Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office police preparing to strip search Ronnie Reed. | Jacksonville Sheriff's OfficeA screenshot from body-worn camera footage shows Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office police preparing to strip search Ronnie Reed. | Jacksonville Sheriff's Office
A screenshot from body-worn camera footage shows Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office police preparing to strip search Ronnie Reed. | Jacksonville Sheriff's Office

Jacksonville police officers disciplined for strip search

Published on April 8, 2024 at 11:07 am

Two Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office police officers violated the agency’s own rules in 2022 when they stripped the clothes off a 45-year-old man — pulling down his pants and underwear in view of onlookers on a public road — in a search for drugs and money they never found on him, according to an internal investigation of the officers.

In total, three officers can be seen in videotaped interviews telling internal affairs investigators that supervisors never trained them on how to properly conduct a strip search or explained what a strip search is. 

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The conclusions of the internal affairs investigation and the under-oath testimony of the three officers raise the specter of a systemic problem within the department: that officers are making critical decisions, including the freedom or detention of private citizens, without proper training. Two of the officers even told investigators they were unaware that pulling down a suspect’s pants amounted to a strip search at all.

Florida statute requires strip searches to be done in a private place where no one else can see, and officers must obtain permission from a supervisor. The Sheriff’s Office’s policy says only jail employees can strip-search suspects. Experts say the agency’s lack of strip-search training could call into question the validity of these officers’ written reprimands.

Despite failing to find any drugs on Ronnie Reed, who is now 47, the officers arrested him anyway, suspecting he’d given a man nearby cocaine that police discovered. Reed was charged with selling cocaine. The officers justified the search by claiming they saw Reed clench his butt, leading them to believe he was attempting to hide drugs or money.

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The State Attorney’s Office dropped the charges against Reed in February, but only after spending more than a year pressing him to accept a plea agreement that would have sent him to prison for four years. 

Prosecutors never disclosed to Reed’s attorney, Vivian Williams, the results of the internal investigation, which the Sheriff’s Office launched a year ago in response to The Tributary’s reporting on the September 2022 arrest.

The Sheriff’s Office disciplined three officers for how they handled Reed’s arrest, one for turning off his camera during a pat-down search of Reed and two more for strip-searching Reed.

Lisa M. Wayne, the executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, suspected the tactics used by the officers were intended to be dehumanizing.

“A blatantly unwarranted strip search of a Black man on a public street, in front of his aunt, with no evidence of wrongdoing, violates basic human rights and Florida law,” she said. “This unlawful strip search appears to send a clear message by law enforcement to remind Black Americans of our places in this country. Questions remain about the officers’ apparent lack of training, aggressive actions, and the state attorney’s initial prosecution attempt.”

When asked why the state didn’t tell Reed’s defense attorney about the internal investigation, David Chapman, communications director for State Attorney Melissa Nelson, said in a statement that “this was an internal investigation by law enforcement; the state may be notified afterward if such investigations reveal possible crimes or a departure from the truth. In this case, neither applied and the State was not notified of the result.”  

An internal investigation done by the police department focuses solely on administrative rules and policy, which is separate from criminal investigations conducted by the state attorney.

But Wayne said disclosing that the officers were disciplined is a “legal duty and moral obligation,” especially considering the value of the internal police report.

“Why would any government lawyer feel right about coercing someone to plead knowing there is the potential for evidence to exonerate them?” she wrote. 

The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and the local Fraternal Order of Police lodge did not return requests for comment.

The investigation

The internal investigation — which involved the interviews of 11 officers — concluded that the two men who stripped and searched Reed – officers Joel Belgard and Nicholas Hackley — broke department policy.

Belgard and another officer, Cody Melton, said they saw Reed clenching his buttocks, which is why his pants were unbuckled and lowered past his buttocks. 

“You could tell he was clenching hard,” Melton told the internal affairs officer. “With our training and experience, that usually means that you have drugs in your private area or somewhere around there.” 

Hackley said he didn’t see Reed clenching. He and Belgard said they searched Reed to find evidence of a drug deal between the other man and Reed. 

“Mr. Reed must have the money, it must be hidden somewhere,” Belgard said about his thoughts at the time. “I just believed he hadn’t been searched for the funds.”

The officers didn’t find cocaine or money on Reed, but they arrested him anyway. 

Both Belgard and Hackley said they didn’t know pulling down or manipulating Reed’s pants was considered a strip search because they had never received training on that type of search before. An undercover officer whose response was summarized in the investigative findings also said they had not received strip search training. Other officers interviewed by internal affairs either weren’t asked about training or their responses were redacted due to being undercover. 

“I believed a strip search was having someone take off their clothing, like completely removing it,” Belgard said. “At the time, I would not have called it a strip search. Looking back at orders and state statute, I would call that a strip search.”

Hackley said if they had found any contraband in Reed, they would have likely asked Reed to remove it himself — but he wasn’t sure what the next step would’ve been because he had never searched someone like that before. 

Tad Delegal, an attorney who has represented police officers in labor disputes, said if the men were actually not provided appropriate training, they could use that as a defense to fight their discipline. 

He said Belgard and Hackley have two options to appeal — either by filing a grievance under the union or by taking the case to arbitration, which isn’t usually the course of action taken for just a reprimand, he said. 

“Usually, if there are some valid defenses to the imposition of a reprimand, a lot of times, hopefully, the administration officials will recognize that and perhaps agree to a reduction to some lesser form of corrective action, like a warning or counseling,” he said. 

Asked if the Sheriff’s Office has any lessons to learn here, Delegal said yes.

“A good police agency is always going to try to learn from their errors,” he said. “One of the big reasons that agencies should take action, especially when there are issues of training deficiencies, is that civil liability can be based on the failure to appropriately train. In order to have a federal civil rights claim, you have to show a policy, practice, procedure or custom that led to a violation of someone’s civil rights.”

The Tributary asked the Sheriff’s Office if the agency took any action to make sure officers across the department understand what a strip search, but the office did not respond.  

No grievances have been filed by the officers, according to a record request.

Though the statute the officers potentially violated is not criminal, that finding could expose them to civil liability, according to attorney Jack Webb, who Reed hired to explore a potential lawsuit against the officers.

“The cops are claiming that they were not trained as to the proper techniques for strip search, but there’s a comment made by one officer where he says his sergeant trained him to be (disrespectful),” he said. “That doesn’t speak well for JSO.”

Dropping the case

disposition statement written by prosecutor Rebecca Anne Rudolph said that an undercover detective witnessed Reed give cocaine to the man police gave $20. But Rudolph confirmed officers didn’t find drugs or drug money on Reed and that the state would not be able to prove at trial that he was involved in selling drugs to the other man.

In another court document, Rudolph wrote that Reed was uncooperative. Video shows he complied with the officers who pulled down his underwear but told them, “You’re doing too much.”

The police initially justified their decision to pull down his underwear because they said they were searching for the $20 bill or drugs, but they ended up finding both on the other man, not Reed.

Rudolph also had pointed out Reed’s drug-related arrest history, which Reed said he was trying to move on from when he was arrested.

“I know my record speaks for itself, but I have another record that’s not documented,” he recently told The Tributary. “And that’s the record with my family. To my family, I’m nothing like it might look on that piece of paper. Nothing.”

Reed said he felt helpless when he was detained because he didn’t know what was happening and because his family was nearby.

“I was confused because I wasn’t doing anything wrong,” Reed said. 

Williams, his defense attorney, said when she was retained, she immediately viewed the body camera footage of Reed’s arrest and recognized the lack of evidence against him.

“There were things I noticed that were off,” she told The Tributary. “There were so many things missing, but most noticeably that they didn’t find anything on him at the scene or at the jail.”

Reed’s report erroneously listed an unknown amount of cocaine as evidence against him, and the same day as his arrest, the Sheriff’s Office filed a supplemental report clarifying they had found the $20 in the hand of a different man.

This story is published through a partnership between Jacksonville Today and The Tributary

author image Nichole Manna is The Tributary’s criminal justice reporter. You can reach her at nichole.manna@jaxtrib.org or on Twitter at @NicholeManna.

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