Abuse of suspects indefensible

A Times Editorial
Published February 22, 2008

In the 10 days since a video showing a deputy dumping a quadriplegic onto the jailhouse floor shocked the nation, three more allegations of abuse - at least two caught on video - have surfaced against the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. While the circumstances vary and investigations are under way, the disturbing videos appear to have one thing in common: Jail deputies were quick to use physical force in what appeared to be routine interactions with inmates. Sheriff David Gee should give these cases, and his use of force policy, a full review.

Marcella Pourmoghani filed a federal suit this month, claiming that a beating by a deputy caused her brain injuries. She was booked at the jail in November 2006 on a charge stemming from an earlier DUI arrest. A jail deputy grabbed her by the hair and threw her to the floor after Pourmoghani allegedly disobeyed an order. The Sheriff's Office said Pourmoghani was disruptive. The video shows the deputy throwing Pourmoghani to the floor and punching her on the head as Pourmoghani grabs the deputy's leg. Other deputies join in.

A third complaint, filed by Charlana Irving, who was being held May 9 on drunken driving charges, alleges a deputy broke her arm inside a holding cell. The video shows the deputy grabbing Irving in the cell, shoving her against a wall and twisting her arm upward and behind her back.

The Sheriff's Office investigated both cases at the time they occurred and ruled the use of force was justified. But the video raises a larger question: Why was force used in the first place? In Irving's case especially, the use of such force against a woman alone in the cell, particularly once a second deputy came into the room, looks excessive. The Sheriff's Office also said this week it could not determine whether Irving broke her arm before or after entering the jail. That needs to be determined. A fourth inmate has alleged she was abused during a search inside a bathroom last month. The Sheriff's Office is investigating.

The public should not rush to judge Gee's office. The sheriff acted quickly after the video emerged of Brian Sterner being dumped from a wheelchair in January. He forced the deputy who dumped Sterner to resign, charged her with felony abuse and suspended three other deputies - all of them supervisors - pending the outcome of an internal investigation. The sheriff has made clear he was disgusted both by how Sterner was mistreated and at being kept in the dark by jail commanders.

Detention deputies must maintain order, and they are authorized to use force when necessary. That means people sometimes get hurt. But deputies do not have a license to rough up people in custody. Gee needs to look beyond whether force was justified and ask how these situations escalated to the point where force even had to be considered. His office has begun reviewing its use of force policy and will train supervisors to better document such episodes. Those are good steps. But he still needs to account for these videos. Abusing people in custody is indefensible, and so is any suggestion that nothing is wrong in the Hillsborough jail.