Sheriff opens jails for review

A citizen panel will investigate conditions and complaints at the Hillsborough agency.

By Thomas Lake, Times Staff Writer
Published February 29, 2008

TAMPA - Late Thursday morning, as new surveillance footage inflamed what had already become the worst public-relations crisis of his career, Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee responded by doing something Florida sheriffs almost never do:

He announced that an independent citizen panel would investigate his agency and write a report on conditions inside his jails.

The surveillance footage confirmed what attorneys said the day before - that on Oct. 3, 2006, Hillsborough detention deputies dumped a combative inmate out of his wheelchair and left him on the floor of a holding cell for 62 minutes.

That is among five claims of abuse against Hillsborough detention deputies this month, and the panel will try to discover if they are part of a larger pattern. Gee personally chose only one of the panel's 11 members - Dr. James Sewell, a former assistant commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. He told Sewell to pick the rest. And Sewell's appointees include Dr. Lorie Fridell, who, besides being a nationally recognized expert on the use of force by police, is a state board member of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"I think the sheriff has made a pretty gutsy move," Sewell told the St. Petersburg Times.

Sewell said he and the sheriff agreed the panel should be a cross section of the community, and include people with expertise in law enforcement, disabilities and mental health.

The commission is diverse and accomplished.

It includes a retired FBI agent, a retired FDLE agent and Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the U.S. Army's former chief of staff. Alongside them will be a Spanish-speaking English professor, the pastor of an African Methodist Episcopal church, an executive of a major mental health and substance-abuse treatment agency, and Al Higginbotham, the Hillsborough County commissioner who was paralyzed 13 years ago during a hunting expedition.

Gee, who asked Sewell to head the commission nearly a week before the latest video surfaced, said members will have unrestricted access to internal documents regarding booking and detention. They will be allowed to question his employees. They have been asked to deliver an initial report within 60 days and a final report, complete with recommendations, within 180.

Meanwhile, the complaints that caused the commission's existence will be sifted through the judicial process. In February, five inmates publicly accused Hillsborough deputies of abusing them.

The most famous case involved Brian Sterner, the quadriplegic whose ejection from his wheelchair at the hands of Deputy Charlette Marshall-Jones was seen on video around the world. The incident led to Marshall-Jones' arrest on a felony abuse charge.

Another inmate said a deputy had broken her arm. And two more inmates claimed to have been beaten or abused, one saying she suffered brain damage. Then, on Thursday, the Sheriff's Office released footage in the case of Benjamin Rayburn.

Rayburn, 32, a paraplegic who has been arrested 17 times in Florida since 1993, went to jail that day in 2006 on charges of aggravated battery, armed false imprisonment and aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer.

Chief Deputy Jose Docobo said Thursday that deputies handled the situation properly. "Putting him on the floor would be the safest way of preventing him from hurting himself," Docobo said.

The footage runs at eight frames per second. It begins at 4:22 on a bright afternoon, when a Tampa police officer delivers Rayburn to the Orient Road jail.

About an hour later, wearing a jail-issued orange T-shirt, Rayburn goes to another room for a medical screening. What happens there is not clear in the footage, but an agency report says he rips off a blood-pressure cuff and verbally abuses the staff. A deputy wheels him to Holding Cell 2, where he gets out of his wheelchair and lies down on a bench.

He stays there without incident until 8:54 p.m., when he gets back in his wheelchair and goes to the door. At 8:58 he bangs on the glass and frantically scratches himself. A deputy arrives. The report says he begins cursing, takes out a glass crack pipe and threatens to cut the deputy. The report says he swipes at the deputy and hurls the pipe. These actions are hard to see on the video because two layers of Plexiglas separate the camera from the action.

A second guard arrives, then a third. At 9 p.m. they tip over his wheelchair and remove it from the cell, leaving him on the floor. He stays there, sometimes writhing and gesturing, sometimes still, for the next 62 minutes.

During that time, a nurse visits him, finds no injuries and leaves. People walk by. Some look, and some ignore him. A computer screen flashes in the foreground.

At 10:02 a deputy opens the holding cell and brings in another wheelchair. Rayburn gets in. At 10:04, the deputy leads him out of the cell. He rolls to the right and out of the frame. He is now serving 10 years in prison.


Members of citizens panel

- Dr. James Sewell, chairman

- Dr. Lorie Fridell, associate professor at the University of South Florida

- Ned Hafner, director of Corrections and Jail Services at the Florida Sheriffs Association and former director of corrections for the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office

- Al Higginbotham, Hillsborough County Commissioner, District 4

- Brian Kensel, special agent (retired), FBI

- The Rev. Beverly Lane, pastor of First Mount Carmel AME Church, Tampa

- Clarence McKee, chief executive of McKee Communications

- Linda McKinnon, chief executive of Central Florida Behavioral Health Network

- Dr. Delia Aguirre Palermo, professor at St. Petersburg College

- Raymond Velboom, special agent (retired), Florida Department of Law Enforcement

- Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, former Army chief of staff