Deputy Steven Valerio appeals firing after video shows him punching Denver jail inmate

Attorney: 'This case is about an explosive deputy'

DENVER - A former Denver Sheriff's deputy fired in April for punching a jail inmate in the face and then lying about the 2012 incident testified Thursday that he was defending himself.

"I believed he was trying to harm me," Steven Valerio said at a hearing before the Career Services Board, which is considering his appeal to keep his job, our partners at the Denver Post reported.

"He reached across my desk after I had already taken a seat," Valerio said.

Yet, a representative from the city Department of Safety said the former deputy "has a credibility problem," 7NEWS reporter Tyler Lopez reported.

Valerio initially reported that inmate Robbi Martinez threw a phone at him and claimed in a written report that the phone hit him in the shoulder. Valerio even attempted to file a criminal complaint against Martinez, but the Denver District Attorney's Office declined to file charges, according to disciplinary records.

Security video of the Dec. 26, 2012 jail incident clearly shows Martinez did not throw the phone but pushed it across the desk toward the deputy.

The video captures Valerio punching Martinez, then jumping up from behind the desk and tackling the inmate, who cowers, protectively covering his head with his hands. Valerio then throws the inmate to the floor, handcuffs has hands behind his back and lifts Martinez by his handcuffs.

An internal affairs investigation determined that Valerio violated the department's use of force policy and that he  lied in two written statements he wrote on the night of the confrontation. The deputy failed to mention in a report for Denver police that he punched the inmate in the face, according to a disciplinary report.

"Deputy Valerio struck inmate Martinez in the face with a close fist at a time when the inmate posed no imminent threat to anyone's safety," the report states.

Valerio's attorney, Reid Elkus, maintained the deputy's fist did not collide with the inmate's face.

"I do not believe the use of force was inappropriate," Valerio said Thursday.

However, the former deputy admitted, "I inappropriately picked up him up by his handcuffs, which is not how we are supposed to do it.

Jess Vigil, deputy director of the city's Department of Safety, testified about why he fired Valerio on April 17.

"He had other options other than standing up and delivering a blow to the inmate," Vigil said, according to the Post. "There was no threat posed by inmate Martinez's actions."

Vigil noted that Valerio didn't use four alarms that he could have triggered to summon other deputies. He added that Valerio's statements about happened frequently conflicted with the video.

"The video does not show inmate Martinez actively resisting," Vigil said.

John Sauer, an attorney representing the city and defending Valerio's dismissal, maintained that Valerio's removal was valid and necessary, the newspaper reported.

"This case is about an explosive deputy," Sauer said.

The department's use of force policy instructs deputies to de-escalate conflicts.

When Valerio was asked if he tried to de-escalate the incident, he replied, "No, I did not."

Yet, Valerio's attorney, said: "The other side of the story is that Deputy Valerio really perceived a threat and was trying to be truthful when he reported the events." Elkus called the discrepancies between Valerio's written accounts of what happened and what the video shows were honest mistakes.

A 13-year veteran of the department, Valerio received accolades for his work, including being named employee of the month just before the 2012 incident. The award honored the deputy for taking sign language classes so he could better communicate with two deaf inmates in his jail pod, according to a disciplinary report.

Once the appeal hearing ends, the hearing officer has 45 days to issue a ruling.

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