Kevin Desir loved his family.
He loved his father, his mother, his four siblings, many cousins that he remained close with. Desir loved, deeply loved, his two daughters, the first grandchildren of the Desir family, his relatives said.
Desir had plans, including aspirations to buy a house for the two growing girls at the center of his life.
But on 13 January 2021, Desir was arrested for marijuana possession. Four days later the 43-year-old Black man was handcuffed, punched, tasered and pepper-sprayed by detention deputies at a notorious Florida jail. During the brutal 10-minute encounter, Desir became unresponsive. He never regained consciousness and 10 days later, he died.
Desir’s death has received scant national coverage, with authorities accused of suppressing vital video evidence depicting the fatal incident with law enforcement.
But a Guardian investigation reviewing hundreds of pages of internal documents obtained via public records requests, an exclusively obtained private autopsy report as well as interviews with legal experts and Desir’s family have raised new questions around the findings of the official investigation into his death.
The recently obtained private autopsy report concludes Desir died of manual strangulation and declared his death a homicide, contradicting the findings of the official autopsy conducted by Broward county medical examiner’s office. The Guardian has also found that the two deputies involved in Desir’s death, who were absolved of criminal responsibility and later given glowing internal reviews, received only partial retraining and not until more than a year after the incident, despite formal recommendations.
Public officials have also decried repeated instances of alleged excessive force and neglect of people incarcerated at North Broward Bureau (NBB), a local jail in Pompano Beach, near Fort Lauderdale, south Florida. The facility is specifically designated for people with mental and physical disabilities as well as mental health issues. It has been under a consent decree since 1995, which mandates federal monitoring and better conditions in each of Broward county’s four jails, which fall under the management of the Broward Sheriff’s Office (BSO).
“There has been a documented history of mentally ill individuals suffering within their facilities because [those detained] have been left to their own devices and not received the proper level of supervision or care that is expected and required in the state of Florida,” said Broward county public defender Gordon Weekes, who is familiar with the Desir case and BSO facilities.
Desir was arrested on 13 January 2021 for an alleged series of non-violent crimes: possession of marijuana, following too closely in a vehicle and a probation violation, and was transferred to the North Broward Bureau facility.
According to interviews with family, Desir had been grappling with his grief after the passing of his father, 85-year-old Lavira Desir, two months before his arrest. Desir helped care for his father in his last days after Lavira contracted Covid-19 on top of cancer, multiple myeloma. He helped him to the bathroom, served his last meal and recorded his father’s final words on video.
The death was a wrecking ball. The close-knit Desir family was grieving, but, according to Mikeco Desir, 37, his older brother Kevin’s grief was more complicated. Kevin had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder in his 20s, a mental health condition that gave life’s emotions sharper intensity. Kevin went back to visit his father’s grave less than a day after the burial.
After Kevin’s death the family said they received scant information for weeks.
But in February 2021, a judge allowed the detention center surveillance video to be viewed by attorneys representing the Desir family, and Mikeco, under a confidentiality order that would prevent them from discussing its contents publicly.
Almost two years later, the video evidence has not been publicly released by officials at Broward sheriff’s office, which controversially cited an exemption for security systems within Florida’s public record laws for keeping the footage restricted.
“The video doesn’t show how to get in and out of the jail and I think that them using that as an excuse for why we shouldn’t have the video is completely bogus,” said Jeremy McLymont, an attorney working with the Desir family to get the video released.
Meanwhile, the Guardian has pieced together an account of Kevin’s death, corroborating details from the two autopsy reports and two official memos which contain detailed written descriptions of the video.
After his 2021 arrest and detention, Desir was under psychological observation by jail staff, according to documents.
There is evidence in several jail reports seen by the Guardian that Desir was experiencing a mental health episode shortly before the 17 January incident that preceded his death.
According to his jail medical records, Desir was seen twice by a mental health professional on 15 January. During the second assessment, Desir was observed as being nonverbal and “appeared to be responding to internal stimuli”, the records noted – symptoms commonly associated with psychotic disorders.
Desir also did not eat anything after the 15th, according to a memo.
On the evening of 17 January, Desir was seen by jail deputies standing naked in his cell and wiping blood from his hands on several surfaces. He had cut himself on protruding metal from a cell mirror, according to the sheriff’s office internal affairs report.
Jail deputies, including Jeremiah Howard and Ryan Daniel, attempted to converse with Desir and offered him food, which he refused. By 10.04pm, he was ordered to place his hands through the flap of his cell door. Desir complied, and was placed in handcuffs but began to struggle shortly after, when officers took hold of Desir’s hands through the flap and brought him out of his cell, according to a state attorney’s memo.
A struggle ensued for several minutes with six deputies. Officers reported that they “ended up on the ground”, with Desir face down.
With his hands cuffed in front of him, Desir was on his stomach as officers continued restraining him. At least two of the six deputies reported that they stood on Desir’s legs. According to a state attorney’s memo, Howard struck Desir in the face. Desir then bit Howard on his wrist, according to deputies’ reports, and Howard responded by punching Desir in the face several times while, at the same time, Daniel repeatedly tased Desir, for 33 seconds in total.
Documents describe how Desir was then taken out of the unit, to a nearby restraint chair, where he was held by officers who were strapping Desir into the chair by his arms, legs, and across his waist.
At 10.09pm , according to the internal affairs reports and the state attorney’s memo, Howard interlocked both hands around Desir’s neck from behind and held him thus for over three minutes, according to the internal affairs report. A state attorney’s office memo described Howard “using his body weight to leverage Desir back into the chair”.
As Howard was pressing Desir’s neck, another deputy, Angela McNeal, pepper sprayed him directly in the face.
Desir’s medical records, cited by the state attorney, noted that he suffered “a cardiac episode” following the pepper spray, although the official autopsy does not cite this as a cause of death.
Desir appeared to go limp in the chair, records state, and Howard only removed his hands from Desir’s neck when another deputy appeared to signal he was unresponsive, according to the state attorney’s investigation.
Almost five minutes later, one of the six deputies began attempts to resuscitate Desir via CPR. But it took almost 15min from when Desir became unresponsive for local Emergency Medical Services paramedics to arrive, according to the surveillance video timeline in the internal affairs report.
Desir’s condition worsened while hospitalized. He was declared brain dead on 26 January and died on the 27th, after being taken off life support.
But his family believes that he was fatally injured at the hands of BSO officials.
“To have somebody snatched from you like this,” Mikecotold the Guardian. “It’s something that will never sit well with me.”
An official autopsy conducted by the Broward County medical examiner’s office on 28 January 2021, concluded that the cause and manner of Desir’s death could not be determined.
The examination, conducted by Dr Gertrude Juste, the then Broward county associate medical examiner, included reviews of video footage, watched with BSO officers present.
The Broward county state attorney ruled out that Desir died from being tased, owing to normal levels of troponin, a chemical that indicates heart damage, in his blood . But memos note that relevant blood work was not obtained byJuste.
The state attorney also ruled out strangulation, citing that Kevin’s hyoid bone in his neck was not broken, Kevin’s brain was not swollen, and that a contusion on Kevin’s neck was related to a central intravenous line being put in. Both these findings were later cited in a decision not to prosecute any of the deputies involved.
But the private autopsy, shared with the Guardian, concluded that Desir had died from manual strangulation when officers, particularly Howard, compressed his neck. That autopsy, conducted by Dr Daniel Schultz of Hillsborough county, Florida, whom the Desir family hired, lists the manner of death as homicide.
Shultz’s autopsy work, conducted on 31 January 2021, included a review of video, medical records and collected specimens, and cites the surveillance footage as “compelling”, noting: “The video documentation of neck restraint over three minutes does not require any other stressor” to lead to death, referring to the additional tasering and pepper spray that Desir was subjected to.
“A completely healthy individual under no prerequisite stress could succumb to that,” the report concludes.
Despite the private autopsy being performed in 2021, the report only became available to the family and the Guardian last month.
“The idea that two medical examiners could come up with two completely different causes of death is mind-blowing,” said McLymont, adding that the video gives more transparency to what happened.
McLymont added: “One of the most telling things is to have the video seen by the public, by other medical examiners, by use-of-force experts, so they can make their own determination.”
The Broward county medical examiner’s office did not comment on the differences between the two autopsies’ conclusions, but noted that “every examination is separate and independent” from law enforcement and Desir’s official autopsy included a review of a number of detailed records, including “review of the complete video”.
One of the things Desir was most motivated by was providing for his family, relatives recounted.
Desir had consistently held down employment as a full-time insurance broker, but was interested in other business ventures to give more to his two young daughters. Mikeco and Kevin had launched a yacht chartering business , and were working with friends to get involved in the restaurant and lounge industry, his brother said. Desir had plans to buy a home to make more space with his children. They were aged 10 and 12 when they lost their father.
Sercilia Desir, Kevin’s 73-year-old mother, said: “Kevin was a sweet guy. Any parent, any mother would love to have. Sweet, loving, caring. He was a good father.”
In February 2022, after a year of investigation carried out by the Broward sheriff’s office, assistant state attorney Christopher Killoran ruled that Desir’s death was justifiable, given video evidence that Desir was physically resisting deputies and the undetermined cause of death in the official autopsy.
The Broward county state attorney’s office spokeswoman Paula McMahon this week told the Guardian via email they are “very willing to review” the findings of the private autopsy and circumstances around Desir’s death.
Marq Mitchell, founder of the non-profit campaign group Chainless Change and co-counsel working with McLymont to get the video released, criticized the investigation: “There [were] no neutral or objective parties involved in that [investigation] process,” he said.
Desir’s family, said Mikeco, was devastated with the decision not to charge the deputies, but unsurprised: “They never admit fault, unless you catch them red-handed on camera,” said Mikeco about the need to publish the video footage.
Sercilia, who has never seen the footage, said: “They [need] to release the tapes, so I can see how they killed my son.”
Although none of the six deputies involved in Desir’s death faced either prosecution or internal disciplinary action, an internal affairs report recommended that all six officers receive additional training on issues relating to restraint and use of force.
But personnel documents obtained by the Guardian under public records requests indicate that Howard and Daniel – the deputies who had most physical contact with Desir during the altercation – received only a fraction of the training recommended by internal affairs.
Both officers also received glowing annual reviews following Desir’s death. In his work review, Daniel is described as a “very well-rounded sergeant” and was encouraged to seek out additional leadership roles.
Howard was noted as meeting “all performance criteria and expectations”. His review further read: “Howard understands the level of care, custody and control when dealing with mental health inmates especially during the intake process”.
Neither review made mention of Desir’s death or the recommendations made in the internal affairs report.
In a statement, BSO defended their performance reviews of Howard and Daniel, citing the internal affairs investigation which did not recommend discipline.
BSO also noted that while training was recommended for involved officers, “this is not an indication that the employees did anything wrong”.
BSO did not comment on the findings of the private autopsy or allegations of routine misconduct in their facilities.
Desir’s death became the latest scandal in the North Broward Bureau jail, a facility with an outsized history of alleged and reported misconduct and mistreatment of its residents.
North Broward Bureau, like the other three jails under BSO, has been under a consent decree since 1995, an agreement that was updated in 2018.
The consent decree was originally ordered after jail conditions under the BSO were found to be unconstitutional. The decree included federal monitoring and ordered new operating standards for the jail.
The most recent update of the decree ordered that only mental health services and treatment of mentally ill residents should remain under the court’s review, after conditions were described as “absolutely inhumane” by a mental health expert.
Since the original consent decree and its most recent update, NBB specifically has been privy to the site of a number of other incidents, including at least two residents dying while in BSO custody following Desir’s death. Residents dying while on suicide watch including multiple residents with mental illness have reportedly given birth in jail cells alone.
In a separate July 2021 incident that is still under investigation by BSO officials, another 33-year-old resident reportedly had a chemical thrown in his cell by jail staff, resulting in being transported to the hospital in hospitalized in grave condition for over a week.
In both these cases, experts say that BSO staff have resisted giving up video footage and documentation from the incidents.
“It’s been very difficult to get any information about these incidents,” said Weekes.
“If the video is not seen by the public, it’s out of sight out of mind,” said McLymont.
Experts have also accused BSO of not following provisions listed in the decree, particularly with regards to the care of mentally ill residents.
Mitchell accused North Broward Bureau and other BSO facilities of squarely not following the decree.
“[It’s] more often than not that no one is adhering to those standards [in the consent decree] or even decent standards,” he said.
Weekes said that training is available for officers when it comes to how to intercede in a mental health crisis, known as Crisis Intervention Training, but it is unclear how often such training is mandated.
Of the families impacted by alleged misconduct in BSO facilities, Weekes said: “They deserve some level of knowing. So they can have some closure, and grieve their loved ones, and to know that their loved ones have value.”
McLymont and Mitchell are still waiting on judgement on their latest attempt to get the Desir video footage released, a motion they filed in September.
For Desir’s family, the impact of Kevin’s death remains devastating and they accuse the authorities of suppressing the video and covering up an appalling injustice.
“They need to have responsibility for what they’ve done to my son, what they’ve done to my whole family,” said Sercilia. “Because my family mourn for Kevin.”
“Man, I thought the hardest thing was losing my dad, but when Kev died, I lost a piece of me,” said Mikeco through tears.
Mikeco added: “To see my mom after burying [her] husband for 50 years, to have to bury your son eight weeks later, like, that’s a different type of hurt.”