DENVER (CBS4) - The Denver Police Department has fired a veteran officer for what it terms inappropriate force against a female prisoner in a police department holding cell last July.
The department announced the firing of Officer James Medina last Wednesday.
"Clearly his actions taken as a whole are not in line with the values of the police department," said Cmdr. Matt Murray.
Medina is appealing his termination which his attorney calls a "knee jerk reaction."
In a letter from Denver's Deputy Director of Safety ordering his firing, the department says Medina used "egregiously disproportionate" force against Seryina Trujillo and "placed Ms. Trujillo at great risk of serious bodily injury or death."
Police had arrested Trujillo earlier on July 10 for allegedly attempting to interfere when officials were taking her boyfriend into custody. Police say she spat on one officer and kicked Medina, a 16-year veteran, in the face.
Trujillo was transported to the Denver Police Department's District 2 substation on charges of assaulting an officer and interference. According to video of what happened next, obtained by CBS4, when Officer Medina took Trujillo into a holding cell, he ordered her to remove her belt and shoes, but the woman did not immediately comply with the order.
When Trujillo continued to ask questions but did not surrender her shoes and belt, Medina engaged her in a physical struggle which was captured by a video camera in the cell. During the struggle, the officer can be heard numerous times telling Trujillo not to bite him.
Eventually Medina was able to pin Trujillo to a bench in the holding cell and he placed his right knee against her neck. When he got off Trujillo, the woman went limp and fell to the floor, apparently unconscious. She remained blacked out on the floor of the cell for several seconds before appearing to regain consciousness.
Police administrators say Medina never obtained medical attention for Trujillo, never reported his use of force, and used poor tactics in dealing with the prisoner.
Four days after the incident another officer told a supervisor about what had happened in the holding cell.
"This case came to light because the police department did its job correctly," said Murray.
In the letter firing Medina, the Manager of Safety's Office said, "Officer Medina used extremely poor judgment when he made the unreasonable decision to forcibly remove Ms. Trujillos' belt and shoes without seeking the assistance of other officers, and this bad decision escalated into the inappropriate use of force when Officer Medina engaged Ms. Trujillo in a physical confrontation and struggle that placed her at great risk of serious bodily injury or death."
The department says Medina placing his knee on Trujillo's neck was extremely dangerous and unnecessary.
"We have repeatedly talked about the fact there is a culture of change within the Denver Police Department demanded by the community and this is a part of it," said Murray. "There is an expectation that officers act differently than Officer Medina did in this case. This is clearly not consistent with our values and this is not treating people with respect."
However, Sgt. Glenn Mahr on the DPD Tactics Review Board also reviewed the videotape and suggested Medina used "appropriate force" against Trujillo because she was displaying "active aggression" toward him. But Mahr said it was imprudent for Officer Medina to take his gun into the cell because Trujillo could have gotten ahold of the officer's weapon and used it against him.
Mahr also noted that it would have been more appropriate for Medina to obtain the assistance of other officers to gain compliance from the female arrestee.
As part of the investigation, a division chief at Denver Health Medical Center, Marc Schershel, was also asked to review the videotape. He said Medina used "appropriate force and techniques," but expressed concern that the officer decided to go it alone in the holding cell without other officers.
Schershel indicated there were medical concerns about Officer Medina placing his knee on the woman's carotid artery and upper airway.
But Medina's attorney, Donald Sisson, says he has already filed an appeal of the termination saying the officer's actions were "reasonable and appropriate." Sisson told CBS4 Trujillo was actively aggressive, scratching and biting the officer, who Sisson maintains would have been justified using even more force to control the prisoner.
"He used less force than he was authorized to use. I think he did everything by the book. In this case the agency, I think, sort of had a knee jerk reaction and Monday morning quarterback and they don't want officers to use force anymore; and unfortunately they have no choice but to use force," said Sisson.
He said Medina did not file a use of force report because he didn't believe Trujillo was injured and did not ask for medical assistance because he didn't believe she had actually blacked out and believed she was pretending to pass out.
The attorney said he was confident the Medina termination would be overturned on appeal.
The police department says Medina has nine prior sustained disciplinary actions and has received 15 commendations during his DPD career.
for more features.