Being dumped in Florida

Thoughts on police officer’s horrific act toward man with quadriplegia

Most Americans expect our police to represent all that is finest and best about our nation. We assume they will protect us when we cannot protect ourselves.

This is why many of us found ourselves horrified and outraged when we were confronted by the video of Hillsborough County (Florida) Deputy Charlette Marshall-Jones dumping Brian Sterner from his wheelchair. We want to believe that we are good—both individually and as a nation. We want to believe that our neighbors are good. We teach children to view police officers as people that they can approach and trust. We hope against hope for the day when, at least within our borders if nowhere else, brutality will be supplanted by compassion.

For those unfamiliar with the January 29th incident, Brian Sterner, a quadriplegic man, was arrested on a traffic violation warrant. Video from the jail shows Mr. Sterner being wheeled into the booking area. There is no sound, but apparently at the deputy’s request, Mr. Sterner removed his shoes. In a later interview, Mr. Sterner stated that Ms. Marshall-Jones then instructed him to stand, to make it easier for her to search him. He explained that he could not stand and told her several times that he is quadriplegic. The video shows her stepping behind the wheel chair, grasping the handles, and dumping him like dirt from a wheelbarrow. Mr. Sterner hit the concrete floor face-first. He has no sensation from the chest down, so it was not until afterward that he discovered that two of his ribs were broken in the fall.

This sort of incident is incredibly frightening. If Brian Sterner had been attacked and dumped from his wheelchair in a park, a mall, or on a neighborhood street, he could have cried for help and dozens of people would have responded immediately. They would have restrained his attackers, helped him back into his chair, gathered his belongings that were strewn about, and called the police. But he was in a police station. Who can you call when this happens in a police station? The video shows multiple officers, some of them supervisors, either observing the event and doing nothing to prevent it, or stepping around Mr. Sterner as he lay on the floor.

The attackers–and those who did nothing to prevent the attack–were not criminals or thugs who might be expected to do such a thing, but officers who have sworn to uphold the law, to protect and to serve. As such, they should be held to a higher standard than the street punk who has never earned nor sought our trust. They should be exemplary among all the other “good” people of our great nation. Instead, they have sullied us. All the individuals who were within earshot of this occurrence not only violated Brian Sterner’s rights, they also violated the trust that we placed in them–all of us who believe that the reason that we have police at all is to protect us from brutality like this.

In Florida we have a death penalty. Those who take a life can expect to pay with their own. These officers did not cause this man’s paralysis, but they did break two of his ribs. Whatever other punishment they have earned, they should feel fortunate that Florida law does not allow us to break their ribs in repayment for their brutality. But they certainly deserve it, along with enough years of confinement to a wheelchair that they will gain a full understanding of the importance we must give to protecting those among us who cannot protect themselves. Our greatness depends on it.

Editor’s note: Ben Waggoner, born in central Texas, was diagnosed with MS seven days before his 25th birthday over 21 years ago. He now resides in Florida, where he was able to continue working as an IT manager of a small manufacturing firm until mid-2005. Waggoner’s interests are reading, writing, surfing (web), and photography – all of them “amateur.” To hear Waggoner’s eloquent speech on the Brian Sterner incident, visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=VSIw7gM4sIY