Two of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's detention officers face aggravated assault charges after allegedly roughing up two inmates in the psych ward at the Lower Buckeye Jail.
Arpaio actually allowed us (New Times!) to join in watching the video of the alleged assaults this afternoon -- one of which was so egregious it caused another reporter in the room to shout, "Jesus!"
The only thing stranger than Arpaio's new-found willingness to promptly release video of deputies roughing up jail inmates (possible federal indictments against him and/or his staff seem to have done wonders for the sheriff in the transparency department, at least since we tried to get our hands on some similar videos) is that for the first time in a long, long time, a New Times reporter was allowed to attend one of his press conferences. (Our reporters have been routinely thrown out over the years.)
In the video, 31-year-old Deputy Kevin Gerster -- employed by the Sheriff's Office since March 2008 -- is seen stomping on an inmate's neck in one video, and, in another, punching a different inmate in the face while he was heavily medicated and in a four-point restraint.
In yet another incident, Deputy Gerster allegedly used a jail database to get the home address of a former inmate, who a friend of the deputy's believed was having an affair with the friend's estranged wife. That friend of the deputy's, Dennis McCarty, was arrested shortly after he was given the address for allegedly assaulting his estranged wife -- and the ex-inmate -- with a box-cutter at McCarty's Tempe home.
As for the first assault on June 5, inmate Michael Flores is seen chained to a bed in a cell after it was claimed he was aggressive with deputies and banged his head against a wall. As dictated by jail policy, Gerster was monitoring the bound inmate from behind a desk just outside of the open cell.
"He was probably mouthing off," Chief Jerry Sheridan, chief of custody for the county's jails, says at the press conference.
Bad move on Flores' part.
Out of nowhere, Gerster jumps from his chair, tosses the desk aside, goes into the cell, and punches Flores in the face.
Three days after he was released, Flores went to a hospital and was found to have a broken jaw (get ready to pick up the tab on that one, taxpayers -- Flores already has filed a notice of claim against the county). He told hospital staff about his time as a guest of the county, and they called the Sheriff's Office, which opened an investigation into the alleged assault (it should be noted it's unclear how the inmate's jaw was broken -- he was banging his own head against a wall and was free for three days before going to the hospital. But he was punched in the face by a detention officer).
Flores was unable to identify the officer he claimed attacked him -- even after being shown photos of several of the officers he'd been in contact with the day of the alleged assault (he was heavily medicated at the time).
However, the Sheriff's Office claims it compiled about 14 hours of surveillance footage, which was sitting on a detective's desk (un-viewed) on November 11, the same day another inmate was roughed up by a deputy, which is how the MCSO connected the June assault to Gerster.
In that alleged assault, video shows inmate William Hughes led into the psych ward by three officers. He was bound and wearing a spit mask after allegedly running amok at a different jail.
The three officers put Hughes face-down on a metal table, and, as if to say "don't worry, I got the neck, boys," Gerster, out of nowhere, hops onto the table and steps on Hughes' neck with what appears to be the majority of his weight -- and he's a big dude.
The weird part about this was, none of the other officers in the room seemed to think it was a big deal.
"I think they were in shock," Sheridan says.
Or maybe it's not all that uncommon for officers to step on inmates' necks.
Gerster hops off the prisoner's neck and another officer, 32-year-old Alan Keesee, proceeds to slam Hughes' face into the table.
But Gerster wasn't done. While walking Hughes to a cell, he punched him in the head -- four times.
So why would Arpaio be so forthcoming with such outrageous footage of his officers roughin' up inmates -- when he hasn't been before?
"We have an open-door policy," he says at the press conference. "We're not hiding anything from the media...it might be an embarrassment."
(Insert "could have fooled us" jab at America's self-proclaimed "toughest sheriff" here).
Arpaio was asked why, after famously standing by his officers, he was so eager to serve up Gerster.
"I don't think I stand behind any officer who violates the law," he says. "When we do find people who violate the law we take action."
(Insert Adam Stoddard jab here).
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"I personally watched these assaults on the jail-recorded video and was very concerned by what I saw," Arpaio says. "Not only shall this person lose his job, we will aggressively pursue criminal action against him. This type of behavior by a detention officer will not be tolerated by this office and this Sheriff."
What an amazing turnaround!
Wish Arpaio had felt this way back before he cost taxpayers $41 million in expenses from jail lawsuits. The figure is even higher now, since it was based on research done for a December 2007 New Times cover story. That article also reported that with a fraction of the inmate population, Arpaio's had 50 times as many lawsuits as the New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston jail systems combined.
Gerster was arrested and will be charged with aggravated assault. Keesee, the sheriff says, has not been arrested, but probably will also be charged with aggravated assault.