Deputy dumped man from wheelchair, video suggests
By Rebecca Catalanello, Times Staff Writer
Published February 12, 2008
TAMPA - Sheriff's officials are investigating why a deputy in a jail booking video appears to dump a quadriplegic man out of his wheelchair.
Hillsborough sheriff's spokesman J.D. Callaway said the agency is looking into what happened to Brian D. Sterner, 32, during his Jan. 29 booking at the Orient Road Jail, after a television reporter confronted Callaway with the jail's own video.
Footage aired on WTSP-Ch. 10 Monday night showed a uniformed officer unseating Sterner from his chair, then searching him as he lay on the floor where he had fallen.
"She said, 'Stand up.' I said, 'I can't I'm a quadriplegic,'" he told the St. Petersburg Times late Monday. "Next thing I know, I don't see anyone and I feel the wheelchair being pushed up."
Sterner suffered a spinal cord injury at age 18, following a wrestling accident in June 1994. In the past 13-plus years, he said, he's never had to prove to someone that he is disabled. And he isn't quite sure what led the deputy to question him as she did.
"I made it clear in plain language that I was a quadriplegic," he said. Sterner said that even his hands bear the calluses of a man who navigates life if a chair. "I push every day," he said.
Sterner served four years as director of the Florida Spinal Cord Injury Resource Center until 2006. In recent years, he sold wheelchair vans until being laid off in January. Sterner also played wheelchair rugby for 10 years on teams in Spokane, Philadelphia and, locally, the Tampa Generals. According to his MySpace page, he holds a master's in philosophy from Gonzaga University.
State records show Sterner has no prior Florida arrests. The Jan. 29 arrest, a charge of fleeing and attempting to elude a law enforcement officer, stemmed from an Oct. 25 incident, according to court records.
Callaway said he had no details Monday on the basis for the arrest.
Sterner said it started as a traffic stop in Ybor City, and he doesn't know how it escalated into the fleeing and eluding charge. Court records show that Sterner was cited Oct. 25 for blocking an intersection.
Callaway said he could not provide the booking video to the Times on Monday. He offered no explanation for the actions of the officer. "That will all come to light in the coming days," he said.
Meanwhile, Sterner said he's asked Largo attorney John Trevena to look into the matter.
"I'm not really into lawyers," Sterner said. "But I do believe in responsibility and I'm very glad there were cameras pointed in that area because what she did to me is wrong. There's no debating it - just plain wrong."
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813 226-3383.