El Paso County jail sees attacks on deputies rise 

Risky business

click to enlarge Cells hold prisoners pending booking procedures. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • Cells hold prisoners pending booking procedures.

An inmate in the El Paso County jail launched into “kill mode” on March 23, choking Deputy Holden Vanderpool as he tried to serve the noon meal.

“I was going to kill him, because it was like a fight to the death and kill,” the inmate, Matthew DeWayne Kemper, later told an investigator.

It was the second time in four months an inmate had attacked Vanderpool at the Criminal Justice Center (CJC), which houses roughly 1,700 inmates on any given day. In November, an inmate bashed Vanderpool in the head and put him in a “head lock” after rushing toward him unexpectedly, a sheriff’s report said.

Two attacks on the same deputy within months underscore the dangers faced by jailers and serve as a reminder of perils they face when called upon to single-handedly, and without a weapon, monitor up to 80 inmates at a time.

click to enlarge Deputy Holden Vanderpool. - EL PASO COUNTY SHERIFF’S OFFICE
  • El Paso County Sheriff’s Office
  • Deputy Holden Vanderpool.

If the attacks registered in the first three months continue apace, 2019 would see a record number of assaults on deputies in the 31-year-old county lockup — a dicey environment despite the jail being 93.5 percent compliant with American Correctional Association regulations.

“Somebody has to watch these people,” Sheriff’s spokesperson Jackie Kirby says. “It’s a very dangerous job.”

On Nov. 26, Vanderpool suffered abrasions to his arm, the top of his head, around his left eye and right ear, and red marks on his throat. He was treated at a hospital and returned to work within a few days.

Makovan Ryan Thompson, 19, was charged with second degree assault on a peace officer but pleaded guilty to felony menacing. A judge sentenced him to three years of probation.

On March 23 at about 12:45 p.m., Vanderpool delivered meals in Ward B3, which holds people accused of serious crimes for up to 48 hours until they’re transferred by staff to other wards based on risk assessments.

Vanderpool, who declined an interview request, told an investigator he took a meal to Kemper’s cell on the ward’s upper tier and unlocked the door, according to the probable cause affidavit.

Kemper, 36, asked if Vanderpool would let him out. When the deputy said “no,” Kemper jammed his foot between the door and jamb and grabbed the deputy by the throat, the affidavit says.

Vanderpool struck Kemper several times in the face, but Kemper pushed the deputy against the upper deck railing and then to the floor, wrapping his right arm around Vanderpool’s neck and winding his legs around the deputy, who was propped on one knee.

“As the struggle continued on the floor, Deputy Vanderpool said he couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see, and everything was dark,” the affidavit says. After several minutes he heard someone approach and yell, “Let him go.” Other deputies forced Kemper off Vanderpool, who fell onto his back “in extreme pain.”

Kemper later waived his right to remain silent and told the sheriff’s investigator, Deputy Kevin Sypher, “I get frustrated, pent up, and containment causes me to be violent and I get more and more willing [to] beat the deputy to fucking death.”

Claiming to be a former Army soldier trained in defense tactics, Kemper told Sypher, “I get into kill mode because that’s what we’re trained to do, when that triggers, it’s to the death, it’s to kill, it’s not to subdue, it’s to kill you.” Kemper also said he planned to “snap his neck,” take a deputy’s gun and “shoot my way out or die.”

Kemper also told Sypher he was lucid during his statement and was “not gonna claim temporary insanity. I knew what I was doing.”

Vanderpool was treated at a hospital and released, and returned to full duty on March 28.

Kemper was being held on a felony warrant for failure to appear at the time of the attack, but prosecutors have since charged him with criminal attempted first degree murder, first degree assault, assault during escape, second degree kidnapping and second degree assault on a peace officer. Jailers have moved Kemper to a higher-security ward with double doors that houses combative inmates.

His bond was set at $50,000, and the charges are pending due to a request from his attorney for a competency hearing.

The National Sheriffs Association wasn’t aware of any recent studies of assaults on county jail deputies nationwide. But the number of attacks and injuries appear to be on the rise here.

In 2016, the Sheriff’s Office reported that inmates assaulted staff 38 times, resulting in 21 staff injuries. In 2017, 72 assaults left 32 staffers injured.

Last year, inmates attacked staff 80 times, resulting in 18 staff injuries, and through March of this year, the most recent data available, inmates assaulted 29 deputies in the jail resulting in six staff injuries.

If the attacks continue at a consistent pace throughout the year, the number of staff assaulted would rise to 116 with 28 suffering injuries.

As Kirby tells the Indy, “April is going to be a record month for us.”

Kirby says the jail is staffed appropriately and blames the increase on the growing population — up to 60 percent — of inmates who suffer from mental illness.

She says the department conducts critical incident reviews of all assaults on staff to reveal training weaknesses or other issues. “Is there something we failed to do or missed?” she asks. “It’s incumbent on us to learn from every incident.” But she quickly adds, “Just because an assault occurred doesn’t mean the deputies did anything wrong.” Vanderpool was not found to be at fault, she says.

Besides analyzing training issues, Kirby says, the department has refined its classification methods to assure it places inmates in the most appropriate wards. Lastly, deputies double up on inter-ward transfers of inmates who have shown violent tendencies or behavioral problems.

The challenges faced by deputies are on full display on a recent Wednesday afternoon.

After new inmates submit to electronic scans and physical searches for weapons, drugs and other contraband, deputies book them and issue them jail clothing. Jail nurses also perform a medical intake exam on each inmate, which plays a role in deciding what ward they’re housed in. The charges themselves don’t dictate a ward assignment, Kirby notes. Deputies carefully consider each inmate’s behavioral history and mental illness when deciding where to place them.

On this day, more than a dozen inmates are waiting for staff to make those decisions. In the meantime, the jail houses inmates in holding cells adjacent to the booking area. One half-naked man screams incessantly, demanding to see an attorney.

“It can go on for hours,” Kirby notes.

The jail segregates inmates into units that provide intense supervision of suicidal individuals, or round-the-clock lockdown for gang members and those with bad behavior. Inmates in less restrictive wards can mingle with others in an open area, behind locked ward doors. Low-level, non-violent offenders serve as trusties, working in the jail’s laundry or kitchen while they live in a minimum security reintegration unit. The jail also segregates men from women.

The jail staff control the wards’ door locks from a central control room.

Sgt. Josh Seiter, who’s worked in the CJC for eight years, says because deputies are unarmed, they have to find other ways to control inmates.

“We expect to talk to these inmates as people,” he says. “We’re able to intervene by talking with them as a person and calming them down. Talking to people goes a long way.”

Except when it doesn’t. Which is why deputies carry radios and cameras monitor wards.

“These deputies are in a ward for 10 hours a day with aggressive felons with mental health challenges,” Kirby says. “There are just some people who are bad dudes. It doesn’t matter how much staff we have.”

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