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Oklahoma jail officers played ‘Baby Shark’ on repeat as a ‘torture tactic,’ federal lawsuit says

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 11/5/2021 Jaclyn Peiser
Former detainees at Oklahoma County Detention Center in Oklahoma City filed a lawsuit Tuesday claiming jail employees forced them to listen to “Baby Shark” on repeat as they stood handcuffed in an empty room for hours. (Google Street View) Former detainees at Oklahoma County Detention Center in Oklahoma City filed a lawsuit Tuesday claiming jail employees forced them to listen to “Baby Shark” on repeat as they stood handcuffed in an empty room for hours. (Google Street View)

It was almost midnight on Nov. 30, 2019, when two Oklahoma County Detention Center officers escorted Joseph Mitchell into a vacant room. They handcuffed him behind his back and secured him to the wall, a federal lawsuit says.

Then, they queued up the children’s song “Baby Shark,” which allegedly played on loop for three to four hours while Mitchell was forced to stand.

“The volume of the song was so loud that it was reverberating down the hallways,” the lawsuit says.

Mitchell and three other former detainees claim they were subject to “torture tactics” while jailed in Oklahoma City. On Tuesday, they filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court against Oklahoma County Sheriff Tommie Johnson III, county commissioners, the jail trust and the two former officers.

The sheriff’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment late Thursday.

Last year, the Oklahoma County district attorney’s office investigated the incidents and charged the two former jail employees and their supervisor with cruelty to a prisoner and conspiracy, the lawsuit says. Former Oklahoma County Sheriff P.D. Taylor told the Associated Press last fall that officers Christian Charles Miles and Gregory Cornell Butler Jr. resigned during an internal investigation and that Lt. Christopher Raymond Hendershott retired.

“We don’t tolerate it,” Taylor said. “We always did an excellent job policing ourselves.”

The story of ‘Baby Shark’: How toddlers around the world made a K-pop earworm go viral

“Baby Shark,” a decades-old nursery rhyme, went viral after a Korean children’s entertainment company recorded the song and produced a music video in 2015. Children became obsessed with the infectious song — a development that tormented many parents who were forced to listen to the inane tune and nonsensical lyrics over and over. The YouTube video now has more than 9.5 billion views.

The song and other genres of music have been used as a “device to torment,” the Oklahoma lawsuit says. In July 2019, West Palm Beach, Fla., officials began playing “Baby Shark” on repeat to deter homeless people from sleeping or convening overnight at an events space. Interrogators at Guantánamo Bay also notably blasted heavy metal as a technique to break down prisoners.

Mitchell, along with plaintiffs Daniel Hedrick and John Basco, who were all awaiting trial at the Oklahoma County Detention Center, said in the lawsuit that they were forced to listen to “Baby Shark” on loop while restrained and standing for hours.

Around 3:15 a.m. on Nov. 23, 2019, Miles and Butler allegedly took Hedrick out of his cell and brought him to an attorney visitation room on the jail’s eighth floor, the lawsuit says. The furniture had been removed, and the officers handcuffed Hedrick and forced him to stand while secured to the wall.

The officers then allegedly played “Baby Shark” on high volume from a computer in an adjacent room. Hedrick stood there for an hour and a half. The shift commander, Hendershott, was aware “but took no action to intervene and stop the misconduct,” the lawsuit says.

The officers allegedly did the same to Mitchell a week later and again on Dec. 7 to Basco, who was forced to stand and listen to the song for about two hours.

“This prolonged restraint … under the conditions described herein, is tantamount to torture, was excessive and not rationally related to any legitimate governmental or penological purpose,” the detainees’ lawyers argue.

The lawsuit adds that the men “posed no threat to the officers or anyone else,” were “compliant” and were “not actively resisting any lawful command.”

The fourth former detainee on the lawsuit, Ja’Lee Foreman Jr., was spared from the “Baby Shark” loop when the officers allegedly got distracted by another incident in the jail. But the lawsuit claims Foreman was subject to unwarranted verbal and physical assault.

On Nov. 2, 2019, the officers “accosted” Foreman, who was 18 and “small in stature,” “without provocation,” the lawsuit says. Miles allegedly taunted and yelled obscenities at Foreman and threatened to beat him, saying: “I’m going to make sure you live in hell!”

City plays ‘Baby Shark’ on loop to keep homeless from sleeping in waterfront park

Foreman remained calm, according to the lawsuit, out of fear that the verbal assault would become physical. The officers then handcuffed him and took him out of his cell and into another area of the jail where they sat him on a bench and secured him to a bar behind his back for over 90 minutes.

After responding to a disturbance elsewhere in the jail, the officers escorted Foreman back to his cell.

“After removing the handcuffs, officer Miles, in the presence of officer Butler, drove his knee into Mr. Foreman’s back as he slammed him into the wall of his cell,” the lawsuit says. “As Mr. Foreman turned around, officer Miles then spit into Mr. Foreman’s face. Both officer Miles and officer Butler laughed at Mr. Foreman as they left the cell pod.”

Miles and Butler have a history of mistreating detainees and were subjects of many complaints, District Attorney David Prater said following his office’s investigation into the incidents. Prater called the use of “Baby Shark” “cruel and inhumane,” and said it put “undue emotional stress on the detainees who were most likely already suffering,” according to the lawsuit.

The former detainees’ lawyers argue that Oklahoma County, the sheriff’s office and the criminal justice authority knew officers weren’t properly trained or supervised. Not addressing those shortfalls, the lawyers added, made them “deliberately indifferent to citizens’ … health and safety.”

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