MUSCATINE — In a Muscatine police report, the officer charged with assaulting a handcuffed woman said he "punched" her "in the face one time" to end a fight.
Former Muscatine Police Officer Benjamin L. Varela was fired July 12 for violating department code and policies. A week later, he was charged with assault for punching a handcuffed woman in the face "without apparent cause or justification."
Varela, a military veteran, has appealed his firing, alleging the city violated Iowa law in the process.
The incident that sparked his arrest happened around 8:15 p.m., July 5, after police responded to the 2000 block of Oneida Avenue for a report of two men fighting.
In the criminal complaint Officer Varela filed on July 6, he said as officers responded, dispatch told them one man was allegedly hitting the other in the head with a shovel. As officers tried to arrest that man for assault, he went into a house.
"Officers were allowed to enter the residence," Varela wrote, but a woman "was standing in the way and was refusing to let officers in. Officers had to physically remove her from the doorway."
"Officer Varela punched (the woman) in the face one time to end the fight," Varela wrote.
He did not mention the woman was handcuffed, as the city and a witness have alleged.
The charge against Varela
The July 19 criminal complaint charges Varela with simple assault for striking the handcuffed woman in the face.
"During their initial contact/investigation, a female was handcuffed and placed on the ground. Officer Ben Varela eventually took control of the female after several minutes. Once on her feet, the female appears to move around slightly, then is punched in the face by Varela for no apparent cause or justification. The female then fell to the ground and was treated by paramedics on the scene," the complaint reads.
The woman was charged with interference with official acts.
"She got hit pretty hard," said Deanna Reed, who called 911 to report the initial fight. "I can't think of anything to justify it."
Reed said she saw a woman in handcuffs sitting on the ground, crying and telling people to stop fighting. As the woman tried to get up, the officer "turned around and busted her in the face," Reed said. The woman's nose was bleeding and she was crying and screaming before additional officers escorted her to a squad car.
"I'm sure my mouth dropped to the ground," she said.
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Varela has pleaded not guilty to the charge. His trial is set for Jan. 6 in Muscatine County Court.
Code of Conduct and policy violations
Muscatine fired Varela July 12 for violating the police department's Code of Conduct and the city's video recording policy for body and in-car cameras, the city said.
"The behavior was discovered following the review of a recent arrest," said city spokesman Kevin Jenison. "Mr. Varela had chosen to appeal his termination to the Civil Service Commission, but has apparently chosen to take his case directly to court."
On Aug. 9, Varela, a veteran, appealed his firing, alleging the city violated the law by firing him without first holding a hearing.
In court records, Varela claims he was verbally terminated July 12 and given written notice of termination July 17. Varela claims he received notice July 30 that the city would hold an Aug. 2 hearing pursuant to state code chapter 35C regarding veterans preference.
Section 35C.6 of Iowa code, regarding removal and review of public employees, states: "No person holding a public position by appointment or employment, and belonging to any of the classes of persons to whom a preference is herein granted, shall be removed from such position or employment except for incompetency or misconduct shown after a hearing, upon due notice, upon stated charges, and with the right of such employee or appointee to a review by a writ of certiorari or at such person’s election, to judicial review in accordance with the terms of the Iowa administrative procedure Act, chapter 17A, if that is otherwise applicable to their case."
Varela believes he should have received that hearing before he was terminated, because veterans are a protected class of employees given preference. In his appeal, he asks to be reinstated with full back pay and benefits to July 12.
Varela was hired by the Muscatine Police Department on Dec. 20, 2016, and formally sworn in as an officer April 20, 2017. According to previous reporting, he joined the military in 2011 and was honorably discharged in 2014.
The city's response
The city said it could not comment on state code 35C as it pertains to Varela, as the issue is "now the matter of litigation."
"Additionally, the city's general policy is not to comment on personnel matters," Jenison said.
But in general, Jenison said, "Employees that have civil service status have the right to appeal to the Civil Service Commission. This is a three-person, autonomous board appointed by the city council, that has authority under Iowa Code Section 400. They hear matters of appeal related to suspension, demotion, and termination of civil service covered employees. To date, Mr. Varela has chosen to exercise his right to appeal with the court."
According to State Code 80F.1, the Peace Officers and Public Safety and Emergency Personnel Bill of Rights, "A formal administrative investigation of an officer shall be commenced and completed in a reasonable period of time and an officer shall be immediately notified of the results of the investigation when the investigation is completed."
But the bill of rights does not apply to a "criminal investigation of an officer or where other investigations pursuant to state or federal law require different investigatory procedures."