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Pinellas County jail deputy suspended for tipping back unruly inmate's wheelchair

LARGO — David Meaders is trouble from the moment he arrives at the county jail.

Arrested Sept. 19 in St. Petersburg for drinking beer outside a convenience store, Meaders refuses to exit a police cruiser, then struggles with deputies taking him into the booking area. A video shows jailers strapping him into a wheelchair to keep him under control.

He responds to their questions with profanity, firing off six "f--- yous'' in one tirade.

"I'll cut your throat,'' he tells a sergeant.

Corrections deputies roll Meaders backward out a door on the way to another part of the jail. He suddenly kicks out at one of them with his left foot. To protect his colleague, the deputy pulling the wheelchair tips it backward.

At this point, someone gets into serious trouble.

It's not Meaders.

• • •

It is Desmond Quinn, the detention deputy who tipped the wheelchair. Quinn has an exemplary record and no history of disciplinary actions.

Meaders makes no complaint about the wheelchair incident. Yet Quinn finds himself facing a disciplinary hearing that could cost him his job.

The allegation: Use of excessive force.

• • •

On the surface, the incident is a reminder of an infamous 2008 case in Hillsborough County. In that one, a Hillsborough deputy, without provocation, dumped a quadriplegic out of his wheelchair.

None of the deputies who witnessed the incident reported it, but video ended up in the media. The case sparked national outrage, spurred reviews by an independent panel and the state attorney general's office and resulted in a flurry of accusations of excessive force at the Orient Road Jail.

Two Hillsborough deputies resigned and another was fired.

The facts of the Pinellas incident seem markedly different.

Meaders was in a wheelchair because he was actively resisting deputies. He assaulted a deputy (and was not injured when Quinn tipped the wheelchair in response.)

Perhaps most telling, the incident was promptly reported to higher-ups by a sergeant who had witnessed the entire booking process. An exhaustive review followed.

• • •

On average, about 50,000 people come through the jail's booking facility each year.

Some are drunk or high on drugs, others angry or agitated. But the vast majority are compliant, said detention deputy Cpl. John Hornak.

"It's not fight central," he said.

Sometimes a joke or a kind word can calm disorderly inmates. Others are put into holding cells until they are ready to cooperate, said Hornak.

On rare occasions, deputies must resort to force — physical scuffles or Taser deployments — to control unruly inmates. All such incidents are to be reported.

In 2010, the Sheriff's Office reviewed about 150 use of force incidents, including both detention and patrol operations, said administrative investigations Capt. Gregory Handsel.

Of those cases, only three — including Quinn's — rose to the level where an internal affairs investigation was initiated. One case is still being reviewed; the other was closed as unsubstantiated, sheriff's officials said.

"The point is, it only takes one incident to taint public opinion," Handsel said.

• • •

Quinn, who makes $46,193 annually, joined the Sheriff's Office agency in September 2007 after spending 13 years with the state Department of Corrections. He was highly recommended by a DOC supervisor who complimented his professionalism and ability to get along with both inmates and colleagues. He has consistently received good evaluations from Sheriff's Office supervisors.

In his sworn statement to internal affairs' investigators, Quinn agreed he could have handled the situation differently. A training supervisor said one solution would have been to simply pull the wheelchair backward to create a greater distance between Meaders and the deputy standing in front of him, Manuel Cox Jr. (Meaders' kick did not injure Cox.)

Quinn, 38, marked it up to a momentary lack of judgment, saying he "never would try to injure or hurt a person. That's not my demeanor. And people that know me will tell you that it was just an incident that went bad within seconds that I wish it never happened."

The Sheriff's Office determined that his actions constituted a Level 5 violation, the most serious of offenses.

• ••

All deputies undergo 31 weeks of closely supervised training, including lessons on use of force, said training Sgt. Christopher Groff. If a deputy is not up to snuff after that time period, the agency offers additional training. Deputies will not make it into detention if they do not meet expectations in all areas, Groff said. Among other things, the agency looks for individuals who handle stress well.

"Not everybody is cut out for this job," he said.

The Pinellas Sheriff's Office also requires additional training each year that exceeds state mandates.

That training can help avoid use of force complaints and investigations because it gives deputies "a Rolodex" of options when dealing with uncooperative subjects, Groff said.

• • •

An administrative review board makes disciplinary recommendations, but ultimately it's up to Sheriff Jim Coats to decide punishments.

Punishment for excessive force violations ranges from a five-day suspension without pay to termination.

In Quinn's case, Coats said he "took into consideration the totality of the circumstances," including Quinn's spotless record, his willingness to take responsibility for his actions and the fact that he did not appear to be acting maliciously.

"Even though Deputy Quinn didn't use proper technique, I think he tried to make sure (Meaders) was not harmed," Coats said.

In November, Coats suspended Quinn, for five days, costing the deputy $888. He was also ordered him to undergo additional training.

Coats said incidents like this allow the agency to review its own practices.

"Was this a deficiency in policy? Is it a lack of training?" Coats said.

Discipline, said Coats, is intended to educate deputies and promote professional growth.

"It sends the message that this conduct will not be tolerated and hopefully they learn from that."

Rita Farlow can be reached at or (727) 445-4157.

Pinellas County jail deputy suspended for tipping back unruly inmate's wheelchair 01/15/11 [Last modified: Saturday, January 15, 2011 12:47pm]
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