tampabay.com

Police extend apology to victim

Tampa officials also change the policy that let the woman be jailed after she was raped.

By ABBIE VANSICKLE
Published January 31, 2007


TAMPA - Police apologized Tuesday for arresting a University of South Florida student after she reported being raped as she left the Gasparilla parade.

The 21-year-old pre-med student told police a man grabbed her on Howard Avenue and pulled her behind a building.

But on the way to taking her back to the area where she said she was raped, officers learned of a warrant accusing the woman of not paying restitution from a 2003 juvenile case. They handcuffed her and took her to jail.

"In this case the victim was not treated properly, and we don't want this to ever happen again," said Mayor Pam Iorio.

"We feel remorse that she ended up in jail," said Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy, offering an apology on behalf of the department.

At the jail, a nurse refused to give the woman a timely, important second dose of a "morning-after" pill to prevent pregnancy.

The woman's attorney said a jail nurse refused to give the medication because of religious objections. On Tuesday, the nurse's attorney said she refused not because of religious objections but because dispensing medication that is not listed on a medical chart violates protocol.

McElroy, the police spokeswoman, said Tampa police Officer Lisa Cordero told several jail employees about the woman's situation and specifically told them she needed the medication.

'Policy is flawed'

The woman, whose name is withheld because of the nature of the case, told police she had left the parade and headed back to her car at the University of Tampa. About 1:30 p.m. a man pulled her behind a building and sexually assaulted her, she said.

After the attack she kept walking north and called police about 3:30 p.m. and gave them a description of her attacker: medium-built black man in his mid 20s with crooked teeth and short curly hair, wearing a tan T-shirt and jeans.

She remembered there was a Starbucks near the crime scene. They took her to Howard and Swann avenues, police said, but then noticed warrants for unpaid restitution from Sarasota County.

Instead of investigating the scene with the woman, Cordero took her to jail.

The officer followed police procedure, McElroy said. Officers had been instructed to take those with felony warrants to jail, even if they were victims of serious crimes.

"It became very clear that our policy is flawed," she said of the incident. From now on, officers will notify a shift commander or another high-ranking officer and explain the situation, McElroy said. The officers will be able to use discretion, rather than following a general rule.

St. Petersburg police learned the same lesson in 2001, after a 29-year-old rape victim was jailed for three days on warrants. Now, supervisors and prosecutors get involved before a decision is made to arrest a victim.

"A case like that puts police in a dilemma because you have to have compassion for someone who suffered a violation, but a judge has ordered their arrest," said St. Petersburg police spokesman George Kajtsa.

A doctor gave the woman her first dose of Plan B, the so-called "morning-after pill," soon after the assault Saturday. To be effective, the second dose should be taken 12 hours after the first.

But a nurse at the jail would not let the woman take her second dose. The woman's mother said her daughter didn't get the medication until just before she left jail Monday afternoon.

The mother, whose name is being withheld to protect her daughter's identity, says a jail nurse cited religious objections for withholding the emergency contraceptive.

"I was in total disbelief," the mother said. "You just can't imagine the fury that was going through me. How dare that person force their religious beliefs upon my daughter in such a way that it may harm her?"

Jennifer D'Angelo, attorney for the nurse, said the nurse didn't administer the pill because it wasn't listed on a medical chart.

"It had nothing to do with any religious preference or beliefs," D'Angelo said. "I think it might have been a miscommunication. Clearly the poor girl was distraught."

The nurse said only that she would do what she could to help, regardless of her personal beliefs, D'Angelo said.

The nurse is employed by Miami-based Armor Correctional Health Services, which supplies medical care for the jail. A spokeswoman said the claim that medication was withheld on religious grounds is false.

"All medications are administered to patients as prescribed," said spokeswoman Dana Clay. "A person's individual beliefs would not interfere."

Sheriff's officials declined to comment, citing an internal investigation.

Tampa police said several jail employees knew of the woman's situation and of the medication.

Barbara Zdravecky, president of Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, praised Tampa police for addressing the policy that led to the woman being taken to jail.

But she said the jail needs to address getting medication to those who need it.

"We are going to look at a campaign to make sure police medical divisions allow for the dispersal of emergency contraception, not the interruption of emergency contraception," she said.

Zdravecky advocates a state law requiring hospitals, police medical providers and others in contact with rape victims to offer emergency contraception.

The woman's mother declined to talk about her daughter's feelings. The family is focused on finding the attacker.

"The next step is getting the investigation back on track," she said. "There is an experienced predator out there. This is where right now all of our energy is."

Times staff writer Rebecca Catalanello and researcher John Martin contributed to this report.