Video: Colo. deputy suspended for using taekwondo on inmate

Denver sheriff's deputy who provoked a fight with an inmate by throwing taekwondo kicks and punches has been suspended for 90 days

By Alan Gathright
The Denver Channel

DENVER — A Denver sheriff's deputy who provoked a fight with an inmate by throwing taekwondo kicks and punches has been suspended for 90 days.

Deputy Roberto Roena, 15-year department veteran, was notified of the suspension July 29 for the fight that happened in April 2013, according to a disciplinary letter issued by the Denver Department of Safety.

Roena was punished for using excessive force, making inaccurate and misleading statements about the incident and conduct that "compromised the mission of the Department."

Roena was on court security duty on the afternoon of April 22, 2013, but he went to a cell block at the Downtown Detention Center to chat with other deputies. The disciplinary letter notes that it's a jail unit for high-risk inmates who may be mentally ill or who have had prior behavioral problems in the jail.

In the video, inmate John Cardenas can be seen looking at Roena and other deputies talking in the corridor as the inmate hangs in the doorway leading to the cells.

Earlier, Cardenas had complained to deputies for cutting inmates time out of their cells from an hour to 30 minutes because of scheduling issues, the disciplinary letter said. Cardenas warned they would need more deputies and a Taser to get him back to his cell.

The deputies ignore him and continue talking.

Roena, who is also a taekwondo instructor, was telling other deputies how he practices martial arts to "stay in shape," the letter said.

Reona takes a sip from a soda bottle, sets it down on a desk and throws a martial arts kick into the air.  

According to the letter, Cardenas admitted saying "that isn't a kick" and "you ain't s---".

Deputy Roena approaches Cardenas and raising his hands in a fighting position, throws a few sparring punches in the air and makes a partial side kick toward the inmate standing in the doorway, according to video and the disciplinary letter.

Cardenas makes a couple half-hearted punches in the air, but doesn't come near hitting the deputy. Roena keeps sparring, throwing punches and kicking high near Cardenas' head as the inmate backs away.

Eventually they began grappling and Roena gets the inmate in a headlock and takes him to the ground. Several deputies rush up and separate the two men and restrain Cardenas.

In his initial use-of-force report, Roena said Cardenas "squared off on me and raised his hands to a fighting position." The deputy said he ordered the inmate to step back into the housing unit and thought Cardenas was going to attack him. So Deputy Roena said he responded by "using defensive tactics," including throwing a side kick to defend himself.

Roena also said he was "forced" to strike Cardenas because the inmate tried to kick him in the groin.

But the video contradicted Roena's account of what happened, the disciplinary letter said.

"The video footage of the incident shows that Deputy Roena initiated the physical confrontation by approaching and engaging inmate Cardenas," the letter said.

During a meeting with department leadership, Roena said after watching the surveillance video of the confrontation, he realized that his "actions actually caused a lot of these issues," according to the letter.

Roena told his superiors that he reacted improperly, because he was intimidated by Cardenas, who has a reputation as a boxer who has hurt people during fights in the jail. The deputy said when confronted with Cardenas, he "had an adrenaline rush" and "tunnel vision" and this caused him to "not respond effectively," the letter said.

Roena also admitted making a mistake by demonstrating his "martial arts techniques to the other deputies in the detention center."

"You said this incident was an unfortunate circumstance that resulted from mistakes that you made at work," the letter said. "You apologized for your mistakes, for the incident happening, and explained that you did not intend for the incident to happen and did not act out of malice."

Reprinted with permission from The Denver Channel.

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