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Panel finds a lot to like about Hillsborough's jails

TAMPA — The quadriplegic dumped from his wheelchair. The supervisor who ignored the abuse. The witnesses who failed to intervene that day at Orient Road Jail.

It was all an "anomaly" — a shocking moment uncharacteristic of the overall detention system, according to an independent panel that spent six months reviewing Hillsborough jails.

"Bad things can happen in good places," said James Sewell, chairman of the 11-member Independent Review Commission on Hillsborough County Jails.

Inmate Brian Sterner's experience on Jan. 29 was symptomatic of deputy stress, a tense verbal exchange and "a configuration of the stars," Sewell said.

But it wasn't indicative of something larger, something systemic.

"Statistically, an arrestee entering the jail system faces less than a 1 percent chance of being involved in a use-of-force incident," the commission wrote. "In 99.8 percent of those incidents in which force is used, an investigation found it necessary and appropriate to the circumstances."

In a 33-page final report handed over to Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee on Wednesday, the commission nevertheless detailed 40 recommendations about ways to improve the detention system.

After Gee empaneled the commission in response to fallout over the Sterner incident, it has held 12 public meetings and conducted interviews with numerous inmates and almost 150 detention employees.

Its findings touched on everything from staffing and management to inmate grievances and employee misconduct investigations.

Among them:

• Inmates need better communication about how to file grievances and appeals.

After reviewing all inmate grievances in 2007 and 2006, the commission noticed that no inmates followed up on their stated intent to appeal the Sheriff's Office disposition.

The commission suggested inmates lack adequate information about how to file those appeals. An inmate handbook contains only two sentences.

• Likewise, detention deputies should be responsive to inmate complaints, filing inmate grievances upon request or else face staff discipline.

"Some inmates were reticent to approach a pod deputy with their concerns, particularly if that deputy was the source of the concerns," the report read.

• The Sheriff's Office should explore adding audio recording devices in the jail to help better document use-of-force investigations. Now, the Sheriff's Office has videocameras without sound.

• Publications, inmate manuals, signs and other communication should be available in Spanish and other appropriate languages. The commission recommended the Sheriff's Office identify gaps in such communication and aggressively recruit interpreters.

Currently, the Sheriff's Office offers monetary incentives to employees to learn Spanish.

• Deputies need a clear understanding of when use of force against an inmate is appropriate, and when it should be reported.

• Track data on use-of-force incidents on a quarterly basis down to the level of the deputy involved to help supervisors spot trends and identify mitigating factors such as shift, location of deputy assignment and more.

Despite the recommendations, the commission gave the Sheriff's Office kudos for its response to the Sterner incident, for not only creating the independent oversight group and giving it carte blanche to access jail personnel, documents and inmates, but also for immediately bulking up accountability measures.

For example, supervisors are now required to conduct random and regular review of jail video.

"We went in and looked at all the policies and practices, but we found many more strengths than weaknesses," said commission member Lorie Fridell, a professor in the University of South Florida's Department of Criminology.

Fridell, who is also a board member for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said she went into the assignment with a very critical mind.

"We are well-known for calling it like we see it, and we are well-known for looking at government power and making sure that it is used appropriately," she said. "I stand by this report."

For his part, Gee said he appreciated the group's efforts and will examine the recommendations to determine which are feasible and appropriate.

Maj. James Previtera, who oversees the Sheriff's Office training division, said that although officers with the department felt a collective sense of shame after the Sterner incident, he hoped the commission's report re-establishes public trust .

"It's very seldom in law enforcement that you have a law enforcement administrator open the doors to his agency and direct everybody in his agency to cooperate," Previtera said. "That should reassure the public that there's nothing here to hide. …We're not too proud to say, if we made mistakes, correct them."

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

>>FAST FACTS

Use of force at Hillsborough County jails

In a 41-month period from January 2005 to May 2008, 247,999 people were booked into Hillsborough jails.

During that time:

• There were 1,720 reported incidents in which deputies used force against inmates.

• There were 17 investigations into inmate allegations of unnecessary or excessive force. Four of those were sustained and disciplinary action taken.

• A Taser was used six times.

• The average detention deputy used force 3.28 times.

• A group of 20 deputies was involved in 19.5 percent of all reported "use-of-force" incidents. All but two of those were assigned to Central Booking.

Source: Final Report of the Independent Review Commission on Hillsborough County Jails. The report can be found online at: http://www.hcso.tampa.fl.us/IRCoJ/FinalRpt-Book090908.pdf

Panel finds a lot to like about Hillsborough's jails 09/10/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 15, 2008 3:37pm]

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