WARNER ROBINS -- The terminations of two Houston County sheriffs deputies punished following an incident in which an inmate was sprayed with a pressure washer have been upheld after an independent review.
Houston County Sheriff Cullen Talton said the mere fact they got a pressure washer to use on a human being warranted firing.
Lt. Shannon Perry and Sgt. Ryan Burleson had appealed their suspensions without pay pending termination. The terminations were effective Friday.
A hearing before an independent review officer has been scheduled for Aug. 9 for Sgt. Michelle Becham, another deputy facing termination, Talton said.
The three were disciplined in connection with a June 9 incident in which an inmate smeared feces on himself, the wall and the floor of a cell. The inmate was not injured, and the water pressure was believed to be less than a regular garden hose due to a defect.
But that did not matter to Talton. He said the employees never should have gotten the pressure washer to use against the inmate in the first place.
You dont even use a pressure washer on a dog, Talton said.
The inmate should have been removed from the padded cell before it was cleaned, Talton said.
Perry was the lieutenant in charge of the shift and allowed the pressure washer to be used, Becham was the housing sergeant who put the plan into effect and Burleson gave directions to the detention officers who used the pressure washer, according to Chief Deputy Billy Rape.
The deputies were fired for violating their oath of office, which requires that inmates be treated humanely, Talton said.
These are actions that violate the principles of common decency that rise to the level of inhumane, Warner Robins attorney Jeff Lasseter, who served as the appeals officer in the hearing, stated in his findings.
The inmates actions show he is dependent upon others to ensure hes humanely treated, Lasseter said.
Its not a matter of saying in spite of his actions but much more a matter of saying because of his actions, he is to be treated in a manner consistent with common decency, Lasseter continued in the findings. The pressure washing of an unclothed inmate in a padded cell who exhibits behavior as exhibited here cannot be defined as humane.
The inmate was naked because of his prior actions of attempting to clog the drain with his clothing, the findings stated.
Testimony during the hearings indicated the inmate was prone to outbursts, violence toward deputies and a risk to damage jail property, according to the findings. A jail video camera captured the incident.
It is observed in the video that (the) inmate ... was smiling, as well as getting on the floor and assisting in directing fecal matter into the drain, the findings stated. At times, he was smiling and turning himself toward the spray to allow himself to be cleaned.
As a shift supervisor, Perry was entrusted with the authority to treat prisoners humanely and was in the position to halt the incident, Lasseter stated.
George Williams, a Warner Robins attorney representing Perry, noted a parade of witnesses, including retired jail administrator Capt. Charles Holt, who testified on Perrys behalf during her appeal hearing. Perry worked for the sheriffs office for 12 years.
A real dedicated employee just got the shaft, Williams said.
Williams said there was nothing inhumane about the way the inmate was treated. He noted the term pressure washer implies wrongdoing, but the fact of the matter was it was known to be defective and have lesser pressure. Williams also noted the inmate seemed ready to get the feces off of him and seemed to enjoy the water.
But Lasseter saw the incident differently.
In his findings, Lasseter noted another of those fired seemed to be amused at what happened.
The video is clear that ... Burleson was entertained at the expense of the inmate, Lasseter stated. That is unacceptable behavior on the part of anyone, especially a sworn detention officer seeking to uphold his oath.
But Stan Martin, a Warner Robins attorney representing Burleson, said the sheriffs employees were trying to help the inmate, who had prior incidents of assaulting deputies and destroying a copier. He also noted the low pressure of the washer.
Question of orders
Martin said Burleson followed orders, and departmental policy only allows for an order to be disobeyed if it is illegal, or an order may be questioned if it conflicts with an order from another supervisor.
Both Martin and Williams noted departmental policy does not clearly define what should be done in an incident in which an inmate smears feces on himself and on the cell. Williams also questioned how the incident was internally investigated.
In addition, Lasseter found the deputies actions did not constitute conduct unbecoming an officer due to a technical nature of the standard operating procedure for the sheriffs office. Departmental policy defines mistreatment of an inmate to include injury, and the inmate was not injured, Lasseter stated.
Chester Prue, one of two detention officers who operated the pressure washer, also appealed his five-day suspension and 180-day disciplinary probation, Prues punishment also was upheld, Talton said.
In his testimony at his hearing, Prue admitted to washing the cell and the inmate with the pressure washer and that he was ordered to do so by his supervisor, the findings stated.
Prue testified he was directed at one point to spray the inmate in the testicles, the findings stated. He testified that to disobey his supervisor would have subjected him to disciplinary action. Lasseter found Prue violated his oath of office and but did not commit conduct unbecoming an officer due to the technicality.
Thomas M. Green, a Macon attorney representing Prue, and David Venable, a Hawkinsville attorney representing Becham, were not reached for comment Friday.
Chad Cuskey, who also operated the pressure washer and received a five-day suspension and 180-day disciplinary probation, did not appeal. Also, Sgt. George Horne and officer Mark Perry each received a three-day suspension for having knowledge of the incident but failing to stop or report it. Suspensions of three days or fewer cannot be appealed.
Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report.