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Pinellas deputy suspended for pepper-spraying inmate

CLEARWATER — A deputy pepper-sprayed a Pinellas County Jail inmate without cause last August, then lied about it, findings from an internal investigation show.

In video footage the Sheriff's Office released Wednesday, Deputy Wolfgang H. Schmidt Jr. removes his canister, shakes it and points it at the food trap in Jerald Lamar Rouse's cell. Rouse pulls the trap shut, then Schmidt opens it. With the canister in his right hand, he reaches inside the cell. Seconds later, Schmidt pulls his arm out, closes the trap and walks away.

According to 258 pages that officials also released Wednesday, Schmidt said he was conducting medical distributions on Aug. 31 when Rouse blocked his food trap with his hand.

"You can't close my trap," Schmidt said Rouse told him.

Schmidt said he ordered Rouse to remove his hand. Instead of complying, Rouse taunted and threatened the deputy.

Schmidt said he notified Cpl. Melissa McGee and that she authorized him to spray Rouse if he refused to follow orders and resisted closing the trap.

McGee told investigators she told Schmidt to handle the incident as he saw fit, and that she saw nothing wrong with using pepper spray in these circumstances.

Schmidt said while conducting another check, Rouse pushed open his trap and reached out his arms.

Schmidt said he ordered Rouse to step back twice before he sprayed a short burst that hit the cell door and another that hit his chest and face. He said Rouse reached out and moved his body in front of the trap.

It was that second burst that supervisors who reviewed the tape say was unwarranted.

They say Rouse had retreated back to his cell, a contradiction of Schmidt's description of events.

A Florida Department of Law Enforcement report corroborated the supervisors' findings.

It also revealed that Schmidt did not make his department-mandated cell checks, even though he had made entries in an official log.

"The report authored by Deputy Schmidt pertaining to the incident misrepresented the circumstances that had actually occurred," the FDLE report says. "Deputy Schmidt displayed a lack of knowledge pertaining to the General Orders that govern the use of force."

Schmidt was suspended for 240 hours, put on a year's probation and ordered to undergo anger management and remedial use-of-force training.

He called the punishment, which was handed down on Dec. 11, "excessive" and "unprecedented" and has appealed.

"I did make mistakes in this incident," he wrote in his Dec. 15 appeal. "But 240 hours is unwarranted. I do not believe that I am in need of anger management or deserve 1 yr probation.

"The board contends that my actions were the result of the loss of control of my emotions and an act of anger. I acted in control. The use of force was warranted but poorly executed and at no time did I react out of anger."

The inmate's criminal history fills nine pages of an FDLE report. Rouse was 11 at the time of his first arrest in September 2000. He was 20 at the time of his last one in May 2009 and booked in the Pinellas County Jail.

In between, there were arrests for battery in Hendry County and vehicle theft in Marion County. Now 21, the Clearwater man remains in custody on eight charges, most of them felonies that range from aggravated assault with a deadly weapon to cocaine possession.

Schmidt has been with the Sheriff's Office for three years, according to testimony he gave in November. He now works nights in the county's north division and earns $42,110 a year, sheriff's spokeswoman Cecilia Barreda said. He volunteers with the U.S. Naval Sea Cadets, an organization that helps young adults prepare for military careers.

Annual evaluations consistently describe him as reliable, cooperative and responsive to supervision, guidance and direction. In an April 2008 evaluation, supervisor Reginald Campbell wrote, "Appears to be at ease with inmates, treating them with respect and objectivity and maintaining a professional demeanor at all times."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Rodney Thrash can be reached at rthrash@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4167.

Pinellas deputy suspended for pepper-spraying inmate 03/03/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 3, 2010 10:07pm]
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