Tuesday, April 24, 2018
Public safety

Pinellas deputy fired over abuse of prisoner at county jail

LARGO — A Pinellas County sheriff's deputy has been fired for grabbing a handcuffed jail inmate by the throat and hurling him to the ground, an incident Sheriff Bob Gualtieri calls one of the more flagrant violations of use-of-force guidelines he has seen in his law enforcement career.

Desmond Quinn, 40, was fired by Gualtieri in October after an internal investigation of his attack on the inmate. Documentation of that inquiry, as well as surveillance video footage of the incident, was released to the Tampa Bay Times this week by the Sheriff's Office.

The video shows 22-year-old Citrus County resident David Fowler being booked into the Pinellas County Jail on May 26 on a DUI arrest. After Fowler complains to Quinn about pain from his handcuffs, the deputy abruptly wraps both his hands around the young man's throat, slams him forward onto a counter, then throws him backward.

Fowler crashes to the floor and begins sobbing as several deputies watch.

"The way he slammed the guy to the ground was horrific and uncalled for," Gualtieri said. "We're lucky the guy didn't crack his head open."

Fowler, a traveling welder who has been arrested multiple times for driving while intoxicated and drug possession, said he was gratified to hear of Quinn's firing. He said he didn't suffer lasting injuries. He was released without bail on the DUI charge, which he said is pending.

"It made me feel good to know that there are people out there making sure officers are following the rules," Fowler said.

Quinn could not be reached for comment. In an interview with investigators, he said Fowler had been "mouthy" and had blown into his face, leading the deputy to defend himself from "spit particles" in the intoxicated man's breath.

Quinn admitted to investigators he had verbally threatened Fowler before grabbing his neck, telling him, "I'm going to knock you down."

He acknowledged he had overreacted.

"I'm supposed to be a professional at all times. I wasn't professional in that 13-minute slot. Did I do wrong, yes. I did wrong," Quinn said, according to a transcript of the interview.

Quinn worked at the Sheriff's Office for five years and served 13 years with the Florida Department of Corrections.

It's not the first time he has been in trouble for roughing up people under arrest. In 2010, Quinn tipped over a wheelchair occupied by a belligerent suspect who was being booked into the jail, leading to a suspension and retraining in the appropriate use of force.

Gualtieri said the earlier incident, combined with additional allegations in 2012 that Quinn had not performed his jail rounds in a timely manner, contributed to the decision to fire him. He said his agency decided not to pursue criminal charges against Quinn because they could not prove criminal intent.

"People make mistakes," Gualtieri said. "None of us are perfect. But when you make those mistakes, you've got to learn."

Brutality toward prisoners is a sensitive topic among Tampa Bay's law enforcement officers — especially when captured on video.

In 2008, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office endured a storm of criticism when surveillance footage showed a jail deputy dumping quadriplegic Brian Sterner from a wheelchair. The video went viral. Sterner's attorney said at the time that Hillsborough had become "an international symbol for inmate abuse."

Two Hillsborough deputies resigned and one was fired over the incident, and a panel was convened to examine complaints of systemic abuse in the county jail system.

Gualtieri said Quinn's actions aren't symptomatic of bigger problems with mistreatment of Pinellas jail inmates. He said the deputy's outburst was an aberration from the training jail employees receive.

In testimony to internal affairs investigators, sheriff's Deputy Randolph Roberts, who teaches defensive tactics in the department's training division, said neither grabbing a suspect by the neck nor throwing one to the ground resemble any techniques deputies learn.

"It's not a training issue, because he was just totally outside the boundaries," Gualtieri said.

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.

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