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Boot camp injustice

Bay County Sheriff Frank McKeithen berated "loose cannon politicians" last week for expressing their outrage over a videotape showing a teenager beaten by guards in his juvenile boot camp. Now that the tape is public for all to see, the sheriff is the one who seems to have misfired.

The scenes are as indefensible as 14-year-old Martin Anderson was defenseless. Anywhere from three to nine guards can be seen trying to restrain the 140-pound boy. He had just entered the camp only hours earlier. He was kneed and wrestled to the ground, where he was struck several more times. Throughout most of the episode, his body was limp. Finally, a woman in a white coat approached and used a stethoscope to check him.

The Bay County medical examiner has attributed Anderson's death to internal bleeding linked to a sickle cell trait. The exercise and stress at the camp, the examiner said, produced a "cascade of events" leading to his death. Those who watch the video, though, will not be ready to accept such an unusual medical finding at face value.

Whether the beating caused Anderson's death is a different question from whether it was necessary and appropriate. It was neither, and Sheriff McKeithen only hurts his own cause by trying to pretend otherwise.

At a state House committee meeting held Wednesday to discuss boot camps, Rep. Everett Rice, R-Treasure Island, was quick to come to McKeithen's defense. "To suggest we need to throw the whole concept out because of this one incident," Rice said, "is just flat wrong."

Rice, the former Pinellas sheriff who operated his own boot camp, may be right. But the problem is that the Anderson incident is not isolated. Some 30 children have died in juvenile offender boot camps nationwide, including three in Florida's custody over the past three years. Further, the policies on use of force vary widely from one boot camp to another, and a Department of Juvenile Justice official admitted to committee members that "maybe we haven't been as vigilant as we could be."

In fact, before the videotape raised questions, camp officials had offered only two misleading sentences by way of reporting Anderson's death: "During physical training, youth M.A. passed out on the ground and was unresponsive to staff. 911 was immediately notified."

Whether all of Florida's boot camps should be closed is still an open question. Certainly, the fact that 62 percent of camp participants are rearrested upon release is hardly a selling point for the camps' effectiveness. But, at a minimum, the state can no longer count on sheriffs to set the parameters for use of force or to police those in uniform who cross the line. McKeithen may be in denial, but the state cannot afford to be.