Denver sheriff deputy suspended after striking jail inmate in head with nunchucks

A Denver sheriff deputy used excessive force when he struck a jail inmate in the back of the head with nunchucks and caused the inmate to be hospitalized, Denver public safety officials found.

Deputy Joseph Burgos will serve a 30-day unpaid suspension for the incident at the Downtown Detention Center, according to an Oct. 13 disciplinary letter obtained by The Denver Post through a records request.

The nunchucks are primarily intended to help deputies grab and restrain limbs or for pain compliance techniques, not as impact weapons like in Bruce Li movies. Department policy states deputies should not use the weapon to strike a person’s head or neck unless lethal force is authorized, which is only permitted when a deputy is defending themselves or someone else from an imminent lethal threat.

Burgos used the nunchucks on April 14 after responding to another deputy’s call for help when an upset inmate started throwing trash from his cell onto the floor of the housing unit, according to the letter. The man, who had tested positive for COVID-19, was angry that the phones were turned off during his limited time out of his cell.

A group of deputies responded to the call and held the man, who is identified by initials in the letter, against a wall. The deputies then escorted the man into the cell and laid him facedown on the mattress so they could remove the handcuffs they used on him.

Burgos remained in the cell after the other deputies left and told the man not to move.

“At this point I am still on the floor looking back,” the man wrote in his complaint, excerpts of which are included in the disciplinary letter. “It was then that he blasted me in the back of the head with his weapon. My head was split open and I did need to receive medical assistance.”

Burgos and four other deputies who witnessed what happened said the man started to stand up with his hands balled into fists and tried to hit Burgos. Two deputies told investigators that the man never fully stood up before Burgos struck him. Burgos told investigators that he intended to hit the man in the side with the nunchucks and that he believed the man could have hit him in the legs, the letter states.

“The deputy in question had more than enough time to exit the room safely,” the man continued in his complaint. “He chose to stay there and escalate the situation.”

Public safety officials agreed. In an analysis of the incident, Department of Public Safety civilian review administrator Carl McEncroe found that Burgos had other options besides using force, like disengaging or calling for help from the three deputies right outside the cell.

The man was transported to the hospital, where medical staff used three staples to close the laceration in his head, according to the letter.

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