By Christine Vendel
The Kansas City Star
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Seven years after receiving a Medal of Valor, a Kansas City police officer reported to jail Friday to begin a 30-day sentence for repeatedly punching a handcuffed prisoner.
Jackson County prosecutors charged Carl Counti, 39, on Friday with misdemeanor assault in connection with the Oct. 5 incident near 24th Street and Cypress Avenue that left the prisoner with a swollen and bruised face.
The criminal charge represented the result of negotiations between Counti's attorneys and prosecutors. Once a deal was struck, the wheels of justice turned quickly.
About an hour after being charged, Counti pleaded guilty in Jackson County Circuit Court. A judge sentenced him to two years of probation, 100 hours of community service and 30 days of jail "shock time." He must pay for his incarceration costs, complete an anger-management program and never work in law enforcement again.
Three co-workers accompanied him to the hearing along with his wife, who wept. Counti didn't make a public statement. He simply agreed with the judge when she asked various questions about his plea.
At an afternoon news conference, Kansas City Police Chief Darryl Forté said the assault was not a reflection of the whole department.
"It is a reflection of one person who lost control under one circumstance," he said.
Suspect didn't complain
Forté also noted that the prisoner didn't file a complaint about the beating. Rather, a police supervisor discovered the excessive force during a routine internal review of videotape from a dashboard camera.
"We detected it," Forté said. "We took immediate action and we did a thorough investigation."
Other officers at the scene will not face criminal charges, but Forté said he still is reviewing the incident to see if any policies were violated.
The incident occurred after a police sergeant stopped a car that had been stolen at gunpoint. The driver tossed the keys at the sergeant while walking away.
Court records gave this account of what happened next:
The sergeant tried to stop the driver, Alfredo Guerrero-Ponce, 21, who allegedly punched the sergeant. Counti arrived and pointed his Taser at Ponce, but the stun gun wouldn't fire when he wanted it to. The Taser then unexpectedly fired its probes, but no one was hit.
While resisting the officers, Ponce elbowed Counti in the mouth, chipping his tooth.
While down on the pavement, the sergeant tried to control Ponce's head while Counti tried to handcuff Ponce, who continued to resist. Another officer helped hold down Ponce's legs.
Ponce allegedly grabbed Counti's Taser during the incident. Counti said the wires were touching his legs and he was afraid Ponce would activate the Taser, incapacitating him. He tried to pull his handgun from the holster, but he could not because it was caught on Ponce's shirt. Counti then knocked the Taser from Ponce's hand.
After officers got Ponce handcuffed, Counti kneeled on Ponce, who was face-down on the asphalt, moaning loudly.
"Where the story should end"
"This is where this story should end," Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said at the news conference. "But it did not."
Counti said he struck Ponce six times because Ponce was trying to get up and had kicked another officer.
The officer who was kicked said she saw Counti punch Ponce in the face about 10 times.
Videotape released by prosecutors show more than a dozen blows.
The tape also shows Ponce's relatives arriving at the scene. One of them asked, "Why are they hitting him?" according to an officer at the scene. Police told the relatives to step back, but two refused and were arrested for interfering.
Ponce later told a detective he wanted to apologize to officers. Prosecutors charged Ponce with robbery and tampering. He is awaiting trial.
Ponce's criminal defense attorney attended Friday's hearing and said Ponce supported the plea agreement.
Counti tendered his resignation Thursday, but it takes effect Dec. 2.
His attorneys, Dan Haus and J.R. Hobbs, released a statement noting that Counti served the city with 15 years of "exceptional service, including receiving the department's highest award, the Medal of Valor."
Counti was one of two officers who helped save the life of a paramedic shot in 2004 by a gunman who had lured first responders to his Grandview Road property by starting a fire. Counti and his partner returned gunfire to allow firefighters to retrieve the wounded paramedic.
Sgt. John Frazier, who once supervised Counti, said the October assault was "out of character."
"He always did great work," Frazier said. "His jacket is full of awards."
Another officer was charged with assault in 1995 after he punched a handcuffed man and pounded his head into the concrete floor after the man kicked a metal gate into the officer's head. That officer was sentenced to two years' probation.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Copyright 2013 The Kansas City Star