Sheriff embarrassed: Quadriplegic dumped from wheelchair

Published: Feb. 13, 2008 at 2:32 PM EST|Updated: Feb. 14, 2008 at 2:20 PM EST
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Reporter: Suzanne Boyd

Update: The Hillsborough County, Florida, sheriff on Wednesday offered a personal apology to a disabled man who was dumped onto the floor from his wheelchair while in deputies' custody.

"I am personally embarrassed and shocked by the horrific treatment Mr. Sterner received," Sheriff David Gee says in a statement on the department's Web site.

A video now making the rounds on television networks and various Web sites shows a deputy tipping Brian Sterner, 32, out of a wheelchair at the county's booking center in Tampa on January 29.

"I cannot and will not even try to offer an explanation for what is seen on the video, other than to say, that once it was brought to my attention, I immediately initiated an internal investigation," Gee said.

Sterner had been picked up by sheriff's deputies on a warrant for a charge of fleeing and attempting to elude police in an incident in October of last year, his attorney said.

"This deputy ... she looked at me, she didn't believe that I was a quadriplegic, I guess, and she walked behind me with those handles on the back of that hospital-grade wheelchair and she just dumped it straight forward," Sterner told Tampa television station WTSP.

As Sterner lay crumpled on the floor, two female deputies frisked him.

"I told them how to pick me up and put me back in the chair, but without sensation -- I don't feel anything from my chest down -- so I didn't know they were broken then, my ribs," he added.

John Trevena, Sterner's attorney, said the sheriff denied that his client's ribs were broken, saying that X-rays showed no fractures. Sterner spent five days in the jail's infirmary before being released on $2,000 bond, Trevena said.

The deputy responsible for dumping Sterner from the chair has been suspended without pay, Gee said in his statement. The three supervisors who were on duty during the incident have also been suspended, but with pay, the sheriff's public information office told CNN.

"The incident involving Mr. Sterner was not caused by a lack of training or procedure," the sheriff's statement said. "It represents aberrant behavior that is totally out of context with policies, practices and standards of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.

"Last year over 72,000 inmates were processed through central booking, more than 230 of them came to jail in wheelchairs," he added.

Gee said he offered his personal apology to Sterner for "the treatment he received."

"I want to assure him, and the public at large, that this incident is not indicative of the behavior of the over 3,500 men and women of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office who perform their duties with pride and professionalism on a daily basis," he said.

Trevena said his client would likely not file a lawsuit in the matter, because Gee has pledged to "make it right."

"He was very apologetic, very contrite," the attorney told CNN in a phone interview Wednesday, referring to a conversation he had with the sheriff Tuesday. "I don't believe a lawsuit is going to be necessary. He said he will do anything and everything to make it right."

Trevena said Gee is handing the matter over to the state's attorney to review for possible criminal charges.

The lawyer said the arrest was a complete surprise to Sterner, who had received only a ticket after police stopped him in his hand-pedal-controlled car for failing to yield in October.

At the time, the attorney said, Sterner also submitted to a blood test and no illegal substances were found in his blood.

Sterner became disabled in a wrestling accident when he was 18, Trevena said.

Sterner took his story to WTSP a few days after he was released from custody, his attorney said, and the station obtained the booking video from the sheriff's department.

Previously: A Tampa-area deputy dumps a wheelchair bound man on the floor. It happened at the Hillsborough County Jail and cameras were rolling.

Brian Sterner broke his neck almost 14 years ago. He's a quadriplegic. "A deputy, she looked at me, and didn't believe I was a quadriplegic I guess. And she walked behind me with those handles on the back of those hospital grade wheelchair and just dumped it straight forward."

Sterner says he tried to roll as he was going down, but hit so hard, he thought he had broken two ribs. Then, while he was on the floor, deputies frisked him and tried to get him back to the chair. "I told them how to pick me up and put me back in the chair. But without sensation, I don't feel anything from my chest down. So, I didn't know they were broken then - my ribs."

The Hillsborough Sheriff's Office didn't know anything about the incident until our sister station in Tampa showed them their tape. This has all come to light Tuesday, so this review is very active. "It's incredibly degrading, and it's an example of how poorly trained the Hillsborough sheriff's office is. If they're trying to figure out if somebody is in a wheelchair or not, there are many other ways than to dump somebody on their face."

The Hillsborough County sheriff's office held a news conference Tuesday where they announced the suspension of that deputy. The chief deputy says the sheriff's office will now try to make things right for Sterner.