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Hillsborough sheriff's deputies not disciplined in inmate's death

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office did not formally discipline any of its employees in the aftermath of a disastrous series of misjudgments that left a jail inmate going nearly 36 hours without treatment for a fatal stroke, agency officials said this week.

Allen Daniel Hicks Sr., 51, was arrested in May 2012 by the Florida Highway Patrol after crashing his car into a guardrail on Interstate 275. Confused and unable to use the left side of his body, he was booked into the Hillsborough jail system and spent much of the next two days sprawled motionless on the floor of a cell.

Hicks was finally sent to Tampa General Hospital and diagnosed with an ischemic stroke after a jail nurse found him lying in his own urine. He died from the stroke in August 2012. This year, the Sheriff's Office and Armor Correctional Health Services, the private contractor that handles prisoners' medical care, paid Hicks' heirs $1 million in a wrongful-death settlement.

In an internal review of the incident completed in July 2012, a top sheriff's official concluded multiple mistakes were made by deputies and Armor personnel. Three deputies, four nurses and two Armor administrative employees were singled out by name for their questionable actions.

Despite those findings, no internal-affairs investigations or formal disciplinary measures were launched against the individual deputies who had a hand in Hicks' fateful jail stay. Instead, "more detailed training" in recognizing stroke symptoms was initiated for all jail employees, the Sheriff's Office said.

"In the course of reviewing the care and custody of Mr. Allen Hicks, the actions of each Sheriff's Office employee were scrutinized to determine if any individual grossly failed to fulfill their duties," the Sheriff's Office said in a statement. "Despite the cumulative failure in this case, deputies are provided with limited medical training and must defer to emergency medical services and medical professionals for diagnosis and care of complex medical issues."

Some of those who were close to Hicks, a youth baseball coach in Tampa, said they were angered by what they see as an absence of accountability for the government employees and contractors who mishandled his ailment.

"Even if you have no medical background, if you see some guy who's laying in the same spot for 36 hours and isn't moving and smells of urine, clearly something's not right," said Eric Comstock, 20, a pitcher at Eastern Michigan University who was coached by Hicks during his high school years in Tampa.

Internal agency records describe a complicated set of events in which both public and private employees failed repeatedly to diagnose Hicks' stroke symptoms. The responsibility borne by Armor contract workers is reflected in the settlement paid to Hicks' estate: the company paid $800,000, while the Sheriff's Office paid $200,000. (Under Florida law, wrongful-death settlements of more than $300,000 by government agencies must be approved by the state Legislature.)

But in an era when law enforcement officials are not infrequently investigated and punished for such minor infractions as paperwork errors and auto accidents, the lack of individual accountability for deputies whose oversights may have contributed to a prisoner's death stands out as unusual.

Robert Pusins, a former major in the Fort Lauderdale Police Department who now works as a consultant and expert witness on police practices, said he would expect any break with an agency's policies and procedures to trigger scrutiny of specific employees, particularly in a case that resulted in death.

"If policy wasn't followed, I would expect the person would receive some level of discipline," Pusins said. "It's important for the individual, but it's just as important to send a message to the entire agency that if you don't do your job, you're going to be held accountable."

The sheriff's statement asserted that Hicks was not showing "the more commonly known identifiers of stroke," such as "impaired speech" and "facial droop."

However, Hicks displayed another sign — immobility or weakness on one side of his body — from the time he first arrived at the jail. In surveillance video, he can be seen dragging his left leg from a wheelchair during booking and later trying to crawl on the floor of his cell using only his right limbs.

Deputies thought these symptoms were explained by Hicks' complaints of an earlier back injury, the Sheriff's Office said.

Sheriff's Office Col. James Previtera concluded in the agency's internal review that several deputies made mistakes.

Among them were: Sgt. Tracy Wallace, who Previtera said erred by allowing Hicks into the jail without a medical assessment; Lt. Luis Llauger, who along with Wallace "failed by allowing Hicks to remain in the holding cell for an excessive period of time without proper medical screening"; and Sgt. Kawanna Jenkins, who "properly questioned Hicks' immobility and assignment to confinement housing, but . . . failed to question the basis or demand further explanation before allowing him to remain."

Thea Clark, an attorney for the Sheriff's Office, said Wallace, Llauger and Kawanna still work at the jail with the same rank, though they were moved out of booking after the Hicks incident.

Previtera's review also found that at least four Armor nurses missed signs of Hicks' stroke and that two administrative employees for the company improperly handled Hicks' medical records. Previtera revoked the security clearances of the two administrative employees, removing their ability to work in the jail.

Armor declined to comment on whether they are still employed with the company and would not discuss the employment status of any others mentioned in the internal review.

Two of the Armor nurses named in the report still hold jail security clearances, the Sheriff's Office said this week, indicating they still work there.

News researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337. Follow him on Twitter @petejamison.

Hillsborough sheriff's deputies not disciplined in inmate's death 07/10/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 24, 2013 11:41am]
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