A Los Angeles police officer who was seen on cellphone video repeatedly striking a trespassing suspect in late April in Boyle Heights pleaded not guilty Thursday to a felony charge of assault under color of authority.
Frank Hernandez, 49, is accused of punching the unarmed man more than a dozen times in the head, neck and body during a confrontation April 27, after the officer and his partner responded to a call of a trespasser in a vacant lot.
He faces up to three years in county jail if convicted of the charge, according to the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office.
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"In this case, we believe the force was neither legally necessary or reasonable," District Attorney Jackie Lacey said Tuesday.
The charge, filed Monday, comes amid heightened scrutiny of the actions of police officers in the aftermath of George Floyd's May 25 death while being taken into custody by police in Minneapolis. Floyd's death has sparked nationwide protests and amplified criticism by local groups who claim Lacey has been reticent to prosecute police officers. The county's top prosecutor has repeatedly denied the accusation.
Hernandez was arrested Tuesday afternoon by the Los Angeles Police Department's Force Investigation Division and released less than an hour later on his own recognizance.
Hernandez and another Hollenbeck Division officer responded to the 2400 block of Houston Street, near Soto Street, where they located a man trespassing on private property and directed him to leave, according to an LAPD statement issued last month.
During the investigation, a fight broke out between the suspect and one officer, according to police, who said the officer sustained a minor hand injury and the suspect had cuts to his head and face but refused medical attention.
A supervisor was called to the scene and a witness who saw a portion of the fight gave the supervisor a copy of a cellphone video.
"Upon review of the content of the cellphone video and the involved officer's body worn video, the supervisor notified his commanding officer and investigators of the Internal Affairs Group responded to conduct a personnel complaint investigation,'' according to the LAPD statement.
The suspect was released from custody, pending further investigation.
In response to the charge being filed, LAPD Chief Michel Moore said, "The department has taken this matter very seriously from day one, and he will be held accountable for his actions.''
Police said Hernandez is still assigned to home duty, and he has been stripped of all police powers. Two internal investigations "are nearing completion,'' according to the LAPD.
The Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union representing LAPD officers, issued a statement saying, "While we have a fiduciary responsibility to provide our members with assistance through the internal affairs administrative process, what we saw on that video was unacceptable and is not what we are trained to do."
The Los Angeles Times reported last month that Hernandez has been involved in three on-duty shootings, including one in which he shot and killed a Guatemalan day laborer after the man allegedly drunkenly wielded a knife and threatened two women in the Westlake area in September 2010. The suspect had allegedly lunged at officers.
On May 5, Moore tweeted: "Over the past several days there have been incidents reported in the news that are clearly not consistent with the core values of the Los Angeles Police Department. My pledge to you, is that when these instances occur and we fall short of your expectations there will be a thorough investigation. I intend to take a clear-eyed view and hold individuals accountable for behavior that is inconsistent with the high standards of this organization.''
The tweet appeared to refer to the Boyle Heights arrest, and also to an incident in which an off-duty LAPD officer allegedly shot and wounded another off-duty LAPD officer during a camping trip in San Bernardino County. That officer has been charged with assault with a firearm.