02/29/2008

Controversial Fla. jail video spurs independent review

By Josh Poltilove
The Tampa Tribune

TAMPA — With accusations of inmate abuse surfacing on a regular basis, Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee has announced the creation of an independent review commission to study policies, practices and procedures in Orient Road Jail and Falkenburg Road Jail.

"Sheriff Gee is keenly aware of the public reaction and questions about what occurred in the jail, and understands that public confidence in the county jail system is an essential element in protecting the citizens," a sheriff's office news release states. "Internal investigations into the allegations are currently under way; however Sheriff Gee believes an independent commission needs to further examine the inmate booking and incarceration procedures, and afford the public a legitimate, unbiased report on the jails."

The announcement came at the same time Brian Sterner, the quadriplegic who was dumped from his wheelchair last month by a Hillsborough County detention deputy, was meeting with the state attorney general's office via videoconference.

The office requested the conversation last week because it is conducting a broader investigation into Hillsborough County deputies and abuse, said Sterner's attorney, John Trevena.

Sterner's treatment on Jan. 29 by detention Deputy Charlette Marshall-Jones resulted in her arrest on a felony charge of adult abuse and her resignation after 22 years with the agency.

The video of the then-inmate's treatment made its way around the globe, prompting outcries from the public and an apology from Gee.

After today's meeting, Trevena said he was concerned the state attorney's office isn't taking incidents of jail abuse seriously. Instead of solely asking questions about abuse, officials seemed concerned about the media presence outside the office today, he said.

"I can only assume that somebody is trying to put a lid on this," he said. "Is their real agenda simply to bury this? … I'm losing confidence in the state's ability to handle this matter."

During the meeting, Trevena suggested a special prosecutor be appointed rather than someone involved with the state attorney's office. No response was given on whether the request would be met, he said.

Trevena also said he suggested Marshall-Jones be offered plea negotiations in exchange for her testimony against other deputies who may have been involved in inmate abuse.

He said perhaps the investigation should take place on the federal level instead.

The attorney general's office would not discuss its conversation with Sterner, saying the meeting was part of an ongoing investigation.

"I can tell you that we are glad Mr. Sterner was able to express his concerns to our office, and we are taking this investigation very seriously," attorney general's office spokeswoman Sandi Copes wrote in an e-mail today to The Tampa Tribune. "We will continue to seek additional information and welcome any other information which may pertain to this."

The sheriff's office was unaware of the meeting today and declined to comment, sheriff's spokeswoman Debbie Carter said.

Trevena says the massive media attention to the case prompted a flood of calls to his office by people who claimed mistreatment by the sheriff's office, he said.

However, filing their civil rights complaints would be nearly impossible without evidence, he said.

"We've been inundated with inquiries," he said. "But absent specific evidence, such as this video in this case, it is not possible to litigate their cases."

Since the video's release, other former and current inmates have told the media they, too, were abused by detention deputies. However, the sheriff's office has not acknowledged wrongdoing in these cases:

A woman claimed Marshall-Jones abused her at the jail last month.

Another woman complained that a male detention deputy broke her left arm in May.

A woman filed a federal lawsuit claiming a detention deputy pulled her by the hair, slammed her to the ground and punched her.

Another man in a wheelchair claimed deputies abused him in October 2006.

"It is incumbent on me as Sheriff, as well as the command staff of this agency, to deal with these issues in a way that is both immediate and objective," Gee said in the news release issued today.

James Sewell will lead the independent review commission. He is the former assistant commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and a former regional director of the FDLE's Tampa Bay Regional Operations Center.

"Dr. Sewell brings integrity, experience and the ability to lead a diverse group to this role," the news release states.

Sewell said Gee called him last week to ask him to lead the commission. Sewell chose the other members, selecting people he felt would make the group diverse and knowledgeable.

"I think he wants to ensure to the community that the operations are running right," Sewell said. "This gives the best of both worlds. We're looking at the bigger picture. We'll be looking at the whole operational aspects. … The first couple meetings will be orientation. If we look at the jail, we've got to understand the jail."

The first meeting will take place on or about March 10.

The commission meetings will be held publicly, according to the release. Among the issues the commission will address are:

Patterns, customs and practices of conduct and discipline in the jails.

Policies and procedures that are in place or should be.

Management and supervisory oversight.

Training and employee development.

Gee asked for a preliminary report within 60 days and a final report within 180 days, Sewell said.

Reporter Elaine Silvestrini contributed to this report.

Copyright 2008 The Tampa Tribune

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