Deputy who forced handcuffed teen against wall has history of using force

Austen Erblat, South Florida Sun Sentinel
·6 min read

A Palm Beach County sheriff’s deputy who was suspended after shoving a Black, handcuffed teen against a wall, has a history of use-of-force encounters, newly released documents show.

A 550-page internal affairs report shows Deputy Charles Rhoads named in at least 36 incidents involving law enforcement use-of-force or the drawing of a weapon since he began working at the Sheriff’s Office in 2008 — in at least 10 of those cases, he was the one investigated for the use of force, one of whom was already in handcuffs.

Rhoads pushed a handcuffed man to the ground when he stood up and confronted the deputy, according to the internal affairs file. The man got up again and Rhoads pinned him against a wall and took him to the ground, the report said.

The internal affairs file says Rhoads has been cleared in every use-of-force investigation, while the most recent use-of-force case still is under inquiry.

Now, Rhoads and the Sheriff’s Office are facing a possible lawsuit over another violent arrest, one in which he appears to put an 18-year-old Black man in a chokehold and punches him while the man’s girlfriend tries desperately to stop him. The man’s attorney filed a mandatory notice, informing the Sheriff’s Office that they intend to file suit. The man’s girlfriend recorded the encounter on cellphone video.

The video, obtained by the South Florida Sun Sentinel, picks up in the middle, as Rhoads has Kellen Means lying on his stomach in a parking lot outside a Whole Foods in Wellington. Within seconds, Rhoads strikes the man on the side of the head, according to the video.

With Means in a chokehold, the girlfriend is seen pleading with the deputy, reaching out to try separate him from Means. But Rhoads remains focused on the suspect. “I’m going to [expletive] him up in two seconds,” Rhoads says, looking at the woman. “Stop it!”

Means was charged with battery on a law enforcement and resisting arrest. Those charges later were dismissed. In his report, Rhoads alleged that he saw Means “battering” his girlfriend, a claim Means' attorney disputes.

The lawyer, Brad Sohn, filed notice of intent to sue the Sheriff’s Office for damages. Reached by phone, he said he wants the Sheriff’s Office to pay for his client’s medical care for injuries he said Means got from that arrest.

Sohn said Means and his girlfriend were arguing but that there was no physical violence between the two.

Sohn also wants the Sheriff’s Office to ban the use of chokeholds.

“I personally think that, certainly in situations where you’re dealing with non-violent, no-criminal-history suspects — frankly, kids, in this particular situation — there should be no place for a chokehold in police practices,” Sohn said. “I think this conduct is just inappropriate.”

PBSO has not replied to a request for comment on the Means case.

Sheriff’s Office policy only allows chokeholds when deadly force is authorized “and all other reasonable means of defense have been exhausted,” but that policy was updated in June this year, immediately following public outrage over the death of George Floyd in Minnesota.

Efforts to locate Rhoads for comment were unsuccessful. Police union president John Kazanjian couldn’t be reached for comment.

Over the years, Rhoads has been involved in a number of arrests that resulted in injuries of people and use-of-force reports being generated, records show.

In a 2010 arrest, Rhoads pushed a handcuffed man and took him to the ground after Rhoads said the man stood up and confronted the deputy, according to his internal affairs file. Two more arrest reports, one from later that year and another the following year, said that Rhoads used a stun gun on people who were drunk or otherwise intoxicated.

In 2014, Rhoads arrested someone he said concealed their hands under their shirt and behind their back. According to his internal affairs file, Rhoads struck the person in the head with his knee twice and used a stun gun on them “four to five times.”

The Sheriff’s Office policy on use of force says that employees “will only use the amount of force reasonably and necessary to effect lawful objectives” and that once someone has been “properly restrained and is no longer resistant, de-escalation of force will occur.”

Rhoads has been on administrative leave since August 2020, when he was recorded on cellphone video shoving a handcuffed Black 19-year-old Kevin Wygant into a wall. Wygant said he was trying to break up a fight at a Tijuana Flats in Wellington when the restaurant’s manager called the police.

Wygant said Rhoads and a Sheriff’s Office sergeant initially told him he was free to leave, but as he was walking away, Rhoads, who is white, decided to arrest Wygant for trespassing. Wygant can be heard on the video asserting his First Amendment rights, asking the deputy, “I don’t have the freedom of speech to you?”

"Not to us you don’t,” Rhoads replies, forcing Wygant face first, against a wall. “I’m going to show you what [expletive] freedom of speech is.” A bystander, not seen in the video, tries to intervene by saying, “Woah! Woah! Woah! What are you doing, bro?” Rhoads turns and says, “Get the [expletive]” before the video cuts out.

The encounter attracted considerable attention when civil-rights attorney Benjamin Crump posted the footage on Twitter, drawing more than 213,400 views in a few hours. He called the deputy’s actions “unacceptable behavior.”

Wygant in August told the Sun Sentinel that he was scared by the encounter. “If there was no video, I believe that in this day and age, I would be another victim to how the police treat everyone and especially, I hate to say it, but my color of skin,” Wygant said at the time.

In a recent interview, Wygant added, "I don’t feel comfortable trusting [the police] with my safety anymore.”

The Sheriff’s Office’s public response to that video was swift, announcing that Rhoads was being placed on administrative leave and he was being investigated by internal affairs the day after the video went viral.

Sheriff Ric Bradshaw “does not condone the behavior of our deputy and takes this matter very seriously,” Teri Barbera, a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office, said earlier this year. The internal affairs investigation is still active, Barbera said recently.

The video in the Means case does not show what led to the encounter, but the 18-year-old was charged with battery on a law enforcement officer and resisting arrest, which both were dropped.

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