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Video: Deputy dumps man from wheelchair

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TODAY contributor
updated 2/13/2008 11:15:44 AM ET 2008-02-13T16:15:44

It’s hard to shock people in this modern wired world, but even the chief deputy of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s office in Florida found the security camera video of a jailer dumping a paralyzed man out of his wheelchair appalling.

“It can happen to anybody at any time,” the man in the wheelchair, Brian Sterner, warned TODAY co-host Meredith Vieira on Wednesday in New York. “Hopefully, that’s what will come out of this, that this negative way of dealing with life and people will change.”

The incident, captured on surveillance video and viewed by thousands on the Internet, occurred on Jan. 29 when Sterner was being booked in the county jail on a warrant for a traffic violation. It came to light only in the past week when Sterner, still angry at the treatment he received, called a Tampa television reporter, who obtained the tape and broke the story.

The 32-year-old Sterner, who broke his neck 14 years ago and has use of his arms but not his legs, doesn’t feel that he’s alone in the way he was treated. He’s contemplating filing charges against those involved, but he said his hope is to bring about a change in the system.

“It’s not about one deputy, it’s not about the sheriff, it’s not about the governor,” Sterner sad. “It’s about this ridiculous — ridiculous — down-pression of people across the world, economic or whatever you want to call it. It’s just like Rodney King got beat on the street and I got thrown out of my wheelchair. It happens to people every day. It’s just now there’s cameras that catch it.”

The deputy shown dumping Sterner on the floor, Charlette Marshall-Jones, 44, has been suspended without pay while the sheriff’s office investigates the incident. Three other deputies who witnessed the incident without objection have been placed on administrative leave.

“I was appalled,” Joe Docobo, the department’s chief deputy, told NBC News. “Obviously, the actions are indefensible at every level.”

Sterner, who drives a car fitted with hand controls, does not dispute that he failed to appear in court to answer a traffic violation. Nor does he argue that he should not have been picked up and brought in on the resulting warrant.

But when he was wheeled into the county jail, he said, Marshall-Jones told him to stand up at the booking desk.

“My guess is that it had to do with frisking me,” he said “And I informed her at least two or three times that I couldn’t stand up because I was a quadriplegic.”

There is no sound on the video, but there is no indication of an argument and the deputy shows no indication of being angry. She simply walks behind the chair, grabs the handles and tilts it forward as Sterner crashes on his right side to the floor. Another deputy turns him over, pats him down, and then several deputies dump him back in the chair.

TODAY
Brian Sterner described the incident on TODAY on Feb. 13.

Sterner assumes that Marshall-Jones didn’t believe he was paralyzed. He suspected he may have broken several ribs on his right side, and X-rays were taken at the jail, but he said neither he nor his doctor have seen them. Without sensation in his body, he said he can’t know if he’s injured.

“My right side is still acting very strange,” he told Vieira. “I don’t have any sensation from the chest down, so I very well could have broken something. I wouldn’t even know it.”

Sterner said Marshall-Jones never gave any indication that she was bothered by what she had done.

“She was smiling the rest of the day,” he said. “I sat there and watched her all day — smiling. When she was leaving I made a point of looking her straight in the eye. She just smiled and walked on her way like she was going home.”

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Once released from jail, he said he sat at home for a week, his anger unabated. He thought about the surveillance cameras he had seen in the booking area. “I thought to myself, ‘Well, those are probably on to protect them, and maybe we can use them to my advantage and the advantage of people who are really down-pressed by the system,’ ” he said.

His attorney, John Trevena, added, “Having something like this captured on videotape really sends the message home that we really need to take a close look at what’s going on in our jails and prisons.”

Although the sheriff’s department has issued an apology through the media, Sterner said no one has apologized to him directly.

“There’s a lot of things that can set it right,” Sterner said. “One would be the sheriff apologizing to me personally. The next thing that can happen is the state’s attorney can get involved, and then [Florida Gov.] Charlie Christ can get involved and then somebody else that leads this country can get involved.”

Added Trevena: “No question in my mind — I think these types of things occur fairly routinely, and it’s only when you have unequivocal evidence like this that something can be done about it.”


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