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Monday, Sep 01, 2014

Concerns preceded attack in Pinellas sheriff’s van

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— They weren’t familiar with Pinellas County roads.

They had trouble with the computers in the vans.

Their handcuffing techniques were awful.

Those are a few things Pinellas County sheriff’s deputies observed about employees of G4S Secure Solutions before they started transporting prisoners in vans, according to an internal affairs case file recently made public.

The deputies thought the G4S workers needed more training, but their supervisors rebuffed them, telling them G4S was going to start its contract July 1 as planned.

Five days later, on July 6, a prisoner in a van driven by a G4S employee attacked another man, who eventually died.

The victim, Thomas Morrow, 59, of Treasure Island, was taken into protective custody because he was drunk, with a blood-alcohol level of .392, almost five times the legal limit to drive in Florida, prosecutors say.

The now-accused killer, Leonard Lanni, 37, of St. Pete Beach, had been arrested on a disorderly conduct charge.

Once Morrow fell to the floor in the van, a handcuffed and shackled Lanni repeatedly kicked him, fracturing his ribs and rupturing his spleen, which had to be removed, according to an arrest affidavit. Morrow died two months later, and an autopsy revealed the cause was blunt trauma.

G4S is a private Tampa-based company to which Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri increasingly has transferred duties once performed by deputies to save money.

G4S employees also have replaced deputies working security at the Pinellas Safe Harbor homeless shelter and at the entrance to the jail.

But there were problems on the horizon with the prisoner transport plan, deputies told internal affairs investigators.

“We had heard through rumors that G4S was having problems filling the positions because they couldn’t find qualified applicants because it required, I think, two years prior law enforcement,” deputy Brian D’Amico told investigators.

“So at that point I felt ... the sheriff’s office should have put the brakes on the thing and said, ‘Hey, let’s take a step back and say we’re not going to make the July 1st deadline,’ ” D’Amico said. “This thing is being rushed.”

D’Amico was among 22 deputies interviewed who had driven the office’s 24 vans before the assignment was handed over to G4S.

The deputies were tasked with training the G4S employees, but the internal affairs investigation revealed that when some of the deputies were on the job, they were violating the sheriff’s policies and policing philosophy, as well as state law.

For instance:

They handcuffed homeless people being taken to Safe Harbor, the county’s homeless center, and put them with accused felons.

They didn’t seatbelt juveniles in the van, which violates state law.

And, l Like Andre Izrailov, the G4S employee driving the van July 6, they didn’t always separate non-­arrestees, such as Morrow, from arrestees such as Lanni.

Some of the deputies who had worked for the prisoner transport unit acknowledged they weren’t following policies, which they said weren’t designed for them.

For instance, one policy says prisoners must wear seat belts while being transported. But the deputies driving the vans say they didn’t follow it because it was unsafe to climb into a van full of prisoners to make sure everyone was wearing a seat belt.

“You would have to get into the van, which obviously would put you in danger, because most people cuff their prisoners up front, so they could just grab your Taser, or your gun or anything while you’re in there,” Deputy Sarah Harlan told internal affairs investigators. “If the door was shut you would be in big trouble.”

Only one of the deputies interviewed thought he might get in trouble if he were in a wreck and none of his passengers was wearing a seat belt.

At the same time, deputies found some prisoners in the van would try to hang themselves with the seat belt by sliding down until it was around their neck and performing what one deputy called a “gator roll,” the 1,047-page case file shows.

A lieutenant ordered that unused seat belts should be zip-tied until needed. But some transport deputies thought the lieutenant was ordering them to zip-tie all of the seat belts, taking them out of use permanently, the case file shows.

And, some said, the seat belt policy was designed for squad cars, not prisoner transport vans. And the prisoners would slip out of them anyway.

“There were ... things that we did that weren’t necessarily the same as you would do in a cruiser,” deputy James Walker told internal affairs. “The way that it was given to me and my understanding is that we were kind of the exception to the rule when it came to some of that stuff.”

Deputy Paul Pantel said: “The van was treated more or less like a school bus.”

None of the deputies was disciplined after internal affairs investigators acknowledged sheriff’s policies were out of sync with the demands of their jobs.

Two sergeants — Stacey Barrentine III and Kenneth Page — received written reprimands after they failed to put in place a checklist procedure to ensure during training that G4S drivers were familiar with every aspect of the job.

“I certainly didn’t have a lot of time to develop a whole training program,” Barrentine said in his defense.

sthompson@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-6504

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