Grand jury asks for more records about use of force at Gwinnett jail

A federal grand jury has subpoenaed records related to a Gwinnett County deputy's alleged assault on a mentally ill inmate.

The filing, obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through the Georgia Open Records Act, marks the third grand jury subpoena submitted to the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office since February.

All of the requests involve use of force by deputies working as members of the agency's controversial rapid response team, which is described as handling "high-risk tactical operations" inside the county jail.

The latest subpoena was filed Sept. 5, about two weeks after the incident that ultimately led to Deputy Aaron Masters’ resignation. Masters’ own agency, with input from the Gwinnett County District Attorney’s Office, also charged him with battery for purportedly punching inmate Shelby Clark three times in the head while trying to restrain her. The punches caused “a black eye and swollen cheek,” according his arrest warrant.

Clark's father told a reporter from Channel 2 Action News that his 26-year-old daughter suffers from mental illness and has the "mind of a 9- or 10-year-old."

The grand jury subpoena asks the sheriff’s office to produce “copies of all paperwork and recorded media associated with or related to any use of force incident(s)” involving Clark. It also asks for “any and all” records related to deputies tied to the incident or its internal investigation.

“There’s no room for a quick temper in this job and this behavior will not be tolerated,” Sheriff Butch Conway said in an emailed statement announcing Masters’ firing.

The grand jury’s most recent request was submitted more than six months after it requested records related to a use of force incident involving another Gwinnett inmate, Brandon Adams. Video of that September 2017 incident obtained by the AJC shows Adams being rushed by deputies and Tasered outside a cell after purportedly refusing to listen to orders.

In June, about four months after the Adams-related request, the grand jury filed its most wide-reaching subpoena to date.

The June 13 filing requested all paperwork and recordings “associated with Rapid Response Team’s use of force incidents involving inmates and/or detainees at the Gwinnett County jail between January 1, 2016 and the present date.” It also asked for a roster of RRT members and records of any internal investigations during the same time period involving deputies on the roster.

Grand jury proceedings are generally secretive affairs, and the office of BJay Pak — the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia and a former state legislator from Gwinnett — has not commented on the inquiries into the sheriff’s office.

In an statement emailed to the AJC on Tuesday, a sheriff’s office spokeswoman said the U.S. Attorney’s Office has told the agency that Sheriff Conway and Lt. Col. Carl Sims, the division commander that was formerly in charge of the RRT, are neither “targets” nor “subjects” of a grand jury investigation.

“Based on review four years ago by an outside expert familiar with these matters, the sheriff’s office is confident that the Rapid Response Team has been acting well within legal bounds and has violated no inmate’s constitutional rights while protecting the institutional security of the jail and minimizing injuries to inmates and deputies alike,” the statement from Deputy Shannon Volkodav said. “We provided a great deal of information in response to the subpoena and fully expect no constitutional violations will be found.”

The comments echo those made in filings tied to separate civil lawsuits over the rapid response team's use of so-called "restraint chairs" — which are designed to hold unruly inmates' arms, legs, chest and head in place — the agency's attorneys have posited that it is "highly unlikely that any criminal activity will be uncovered."

The civil lawsuits over restraint chairs, which together represent more than a dozen former Gwinnett County inmates, are from 2013 and 2015. They predate the records requested by the federal grand jury.

The sheriff’s office, and Sheriff Conway in particular, have also been in hot water this summer over the use of federal forfeiture money.

In April, Conway used nearly $70,000 from his agency's forfeiture account to purchase a 707-horsepower Dodge Charger Hellcat that he drove to and from work. Gwinnett County later reimbursed the funds using taxpayer dollars after federal authorities questioned whether the car was being used for its stated purpose of "covert operations" and as a tool for the sheriff's office's anti-street racing initiative.