The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office sent the wrong message through the ranks by failing to hold its deputies accountable for the inadequate care of an inmate who later died from a stroke. While the incident raises questions about other players who had a hand in this tragedy, from county paramedics to the jail's private-sector medical care provider, Sheriff David Gee has control over the jail and the responsibility for those who are in it.
The Sheriff's Office and Armor Correctional Health Services, the private company that provides medical care to prisoners, paid $1 million this year in a wrongful death settlement to the children of 51-year-old Allen Daniel Hicks. He was arrested by the Florida Highway Patrol in May 2012 after crashing his car into a guardrail on I-275. Speaking incoherently and unable to use his left side, Hicks was arrested and booked into the Orient Road Jail, where he spent much of the next two days motionless on a cell floor. Nearly 36 hours after his arrest, soaked in his own urine and with his brain choked of blood, Hicks was finally taken to Tampa General Hospital and diagnosed with an ischemic stroke. He fell into a coma and died within three months.
Internal sheriff's office records show the treating neurosurgeon was "extremely critical" of the care Armor provided Hicks as well as the Sheriff's Office's delay in getting him to the hospital. An internal office review effectively backed up those findings; Col. James Previtera yanked the jail security clearances of an Armor administrator and his assistant. And the sheriff established a new training requirement for jail employees to help them better spot the symptoms of a stroke.
But those after-the-fact steps don't excuse the pass that jail deputies received for not acting responsibly when it mattered. Hicks was put in a cell without receiving a medical screening. Hours passed before he was first assessed, and even then, Armor personnel did not diagnose his stroke. Not until a full day after he was booked was Hicks given a psychiatric evaluation. And it was hours after Hicks was found lying in urine that officials came to terms with his serious medical state. A Sheriff's Office attorney later wrote that a jury trial would in "no doubt" result in higher damages against the department than the $200,000 share that the office contributed toward the $1 million settlement.
These serious breakdowns in oversight call for a more robust response. The first mistake by authorities at the arrest scene was to ignore the paramedics' suggestion to take Hicks in for psychiatric testing; transporting him to the hospital instead of the jail at least would have put him immediately in a clinical setting. And there was no follow-up in those early, critical hours to what should have been clear warning signs of medical distress.
Gee has acted quickly in the past to address lapses in judgment by individual deputies that threatened to diminish the professionalism of the entire department. This is one of those times when the sheriff should have disciplined those responsible in a manner that recognizes the loss of a life and the imperative to maintain public confidence in the office.