Friday, June 22, 2018
Public safety

Surprises leap into view with new body scanner at Pasco jail

LAND O'LAKES — On Saturday morning, authorities say, Peter Waechter tried to bring a sharp metal tool into the Pasco County jail. In the past, deputies might not have found it. But now, because of the body scan machine at the jail, an X-ray image revealed the window punch tool, hidden under the padded insert of the car burglary suspect's shoe.

Inmates have smuggled some legendary things into the Pasco County jail over the years: a revolver, keys, cellphones, even an uncapped syringe. And lots of drugs. "They hide things everywhere," said Pasco sheriff's spokesman Kevin Doll.

So last October, the Pasco County Sheriff's Office installed the RadPRO SecurPASS body scanner, which it purchased for $195,000 in federal forfeiture funds. It became the first detention facility in the Tampa Bay area to have one, and the third in the state, behind the Federal Correctional Complex in Coleman and the Collier County jail.

Since then, deputies have found 15 people with drugs and paraphernalia squirreled away about their body, a knife and a set of keys, a shotgun shell and a tongue piercing.

The scanner, which looks like a white door frame, emits a low-dose X-ray and shows any contraband hidden on or inside a person. Suspects pass through the scanner prior to being booked into the jail, before a deputy has to do a hands-on search. Lt. Barbara Taylor said deputies previously had been pricked by drug needles and injured by other items found during pat downs. Now, those items are found before a deputy has to physically touch a suspect, so there aren't any surprises. "Why take that chance if you don't have to?" Taylor said.

Without expensive body scanners, other Tampa Bay jails rely on wand sweeps and pat downs of inmates entering the facilities.

"People hide things in the groin area under the assumption that detention deputies won't search that area as thoroughly," said Col. Jim Previtera, the commander for Hillsborough County's jails.

But they do, he said, and deputies have discovered drugs, cellphones, bullets, knives and — on rare occasions — guns. And while some items have slipped through the initial screening, Previtera said, detention deputies continue to search after inmates are booked, with the help of Bensha, a contraband-sniffing dog.

In Pinellas County, deputies conduct strip searches of inmates arrested on felony charges and misdemeanor drugs or weapons charges, sheriff's spokeswoman Marianne Pasha said. Any property an inmate is carrying is put into a bin and X-rayed. Pasha said Pinellas hasn't looked into body scanners. Previtera said the jail budget is too tight now for Hills­borough to consider one.

"If at some point we could locate the funding, anything that increases the safety and security of the facility would be welcomed," he said.

Gulfport resident Tiffany Harbison discovered this week how effective the scanners are.

The 22-year-old was arrested about 3 a.m. Sunday in the parking lot of Insomniacs Bar and Lounge on U.S. 19 in New Port Richey, after she nearly crashed into a deputy's cruiser, authorities said. As Harbison was entering the Land O'Lakes jail, the body scan image showed an object lodged in her abdomen.

A body cavity search yielded a rainbow-colored metal pill bottle with 21/2 bars of Xanax inside, the Pasco Sheriff's Office said.

"I totally forgot about it," Harbison told the Times on Wednesday, three days after being released from jail on charges of DUI, possession of controlled substances and possession of drug paraphernalia. She said the bottle wasn't hers. "I was holding it for a friend," she said, declining to explain further.

Harbison said she wasn't trying to sneak the bottle into the jail. Immediately after the scan, she said, she told the deputies about the bottle, apologized and handed it over.

"The scanner works," Harbison said. "Obviously."

Times staff writers Robbyn Mitchell and Alex Orlando contributed to this report.

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