Outside inquiry into jail is good step

A Times Editorial
Published February 29, 2008

Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee took a much-needed step Thursday toward rebuilding public confidence by asking an outside panel to review allegations by inmates that they were abused by deputies at the county jail.

Four people have stepped forward and alleged abuse since a video captured a deputy in January dumping Brian Sterner, a quadriplegic, from a wheelchair and onto the jailhouse floor. Gee moved quickly in that case, forcing the deputy to resign, charging her with abuse and suspending her supervisors pending an investigation into why they failed to intervene or even report the incident.

Gee announced that Dr. James Sewell, former assistant commissioner of the state Department of Law Enforcement, would chair an 11-member independent review commission. While internal reviews of each case are under way, the sheriff said an outside review would "afford the public a legitimate, unbiased report on the jails." Toward that end, Gee did not appoint the panel himself; he left that to Sewell to avoid influencing the panel, its findings and recommendations.

Sewell is well respected as an author and former law enforcement administrator, officer and trainer. His panel includes a good cross-section of professional experts and community representatives. It needs to have unfettered access to jail records and witnesses, and the full cooperation of the Sheriff's Office, which Gee has promised.

The panel needs to explore not only what happened but how and why, and what needs to be changed in the agency's culture or training. Several incidents beyond the Sterner case raise serious questions why force was used so quickly and severely. The panel needs to get to work. Gee deserves credit for taking this step. He should be prepared for whatever follows.