DENVER (KDVR) — A Denver Sheriff Department deputy accused of punching an inmate in a wheelchair and lying about it has been cleared of any wrong-doing.
Video obtained by the FOX31 Problem Solvers shows the March 20, 2019 incident between Deputy Jason Gentempo and inmate Serafin Finn.
The 61-year-old inmate was being transported from Denver Health Medical Center to the Downtown Detention Center when he spit on Gentempo.
Surveillance video from the hospital shows Gentempo and another deputy escorting Finn when Finn is apparently berating the deputies about the whereabouts of his shoes.
According to a Review and Findings letter that summarized Gentempo’s conduct, the two deputies promised to locate Finn’s shoes once they returned him to the jail but Finn, unsatisfied with their answer, spat on Gentempo in anger.
At that point, video appears to show Gentempo immediately punching Finn in the head with a left hook.
“I think it’s obvious he was throwing a punch. He was not trying to block the spit,” said Mary Dodge, a professor of criminology at the University of Colorado Denver. Dodge reviewed the video and read the Review and Findings letter at the request of FOX31.
She concluded Gentempo’s claim that he was merely trying to block the inmate’s spit with his hand is not supported by the video.
“We have this on video and we can see that he punches him in the face and so there’s no excuse for that,” she said.
But a year later, on April 20, 2020, the City and County of Denver did excuse the punch by determining it could not sustain any policy violations against Gentempo.
Gentempo was accused of inappropriate force, knowingly making misleading or inaccurate statements and commission of a deceptive act.
However, Mary Dulacki, the deputy director of the Department of Public Safety, told the Problem Solvers despite the video evidence she called “upsetting,” she saw no wrong-doing committed by Gentempo.
“I don’t think he punched him. I don’t see that and reasonable people can disagree,” said Dulacki.
Both the internal affairs investigators and the Office of the Independent Monitor felt Gentempo should be fired for lying during his internal affairs investigation. Acts of deception are grounds for automatic termination under City rules.
FOX31 obtained the videotaped interview Gentempo granted internal affairs. In the interview, Gentempo said, “It was not a strike.”
When the investigator asked how it was not a strike, he responded, “Because I did not hit him. I did not hit his face. I did not injure him whatsoever.”
Despite the obvious contradiction between Gentempo’s words and the video, Dulacki said she did not find compelling evidence he was intentionally lying.
“We didn’t find it significant to say that he had committed a deceptive act,” she said.
“I just don’t think the public has any confidence in law enforcement’s ability to investigate itself,” said Mark Silverstein, legal director for the Colorado American Civil Liberties Union, before adding, “Lawsuit after lawsuit after lawsuit has alleged that one of the reasons the City is responsible for police misconduct is a failure to investigate and a failure to discipline.”
Silverstein told FOX31 deputies need to exercise restraint when provoked, not knock an inmate out of his wheelchair who was restrained in iron leg cuffs and handcuffs.
“Certainly a considerable amount of force to knock the wheelchair back,” said Silverstein.
But Dulacki said once the deputy was spat on, he’s allowed to respond with physical force.
“Once that spit had come onto his face, he did in fact have the ability to stop further assault,” she said.
When investigative reporter Rob Low asked Dulacki if after seeing the video, the public might question the ability of law enforcement to hold law enforcement accountable, she responded, “Certain members of the public may see it that.”
But Mary Dulacki insisted, “When the evidence supports it, we do in fact hold law enforcement accountable and we do it several times a week, several times a month, countless times a year.”
But Dodge said lots of people may still need convincing in the Gentempo case.
“We need to look at excessive force and we need reform. We need transparency and accountability and what the City offered did not meet that criteria,” Dodge said.
FOX31 was unable to reach Finn for comment. The former inmate has a long rap sheet that includes 84 arrests in Denver over the last several decades, mostly for minor offenses like petty theft and disturbing the peace but also for driving under the influence.
Gentempo did not respond to an email sent by FOX31.
The Denver District Attorney’s Office declined to pursue charges against Gentempo, saying issues of self-defense would’ve made a conviction unlikely.
The DA’s office did charge Finn, who pleaded guilty to one count of harassment on Sept. 9, 2019. He was sentenced to one year at the Denver County Jail.