A small object that's seen falling to the ground during a video-recorded violent arrest in Boyle Heights could be a key piece of evidence in the investigation into whether an LAPD officer used excessive force, and the man seen punched in the video sued the city of Los Angeles Monday alleging civil rights violations.
Multiple law enforcement sources with knowledge of the case told NBC4's I-Team the object was booked into evidence, and it appeared to be a large screw with a rubber or plastic grip, similar to improvised weapons sometimes found in jails and prisons.
The sources cautioned, however, that it's also possible the item was on the ground before the confrontation April 27 on Houston Street and was kicked or tossed in the air during the struggle.
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A video recording of a portion of the encounter was captured on a witness' cellphone and was made public last week. It showed LAPD Officer Frank A. Hernandez repeatedly punching a man in his head and body over 33 seconds.
The object drops to the ground a few seconds after the first punch is thrown, and it slides down the sidewalk from just behind the man's right shoe to the right edge of the camera's view.
The man punched wasn't seriously hurt, refused paramedic treatment, and was eventually released from custody without being formally arrested or booked in jail.
The man's name had not been made public until he filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court Monday claiming police used excessive force and the city of Los Angeles has been negligent in managing its police force.
Richard Castillo claims in an initial complaint he was living in a vacant lot on Houston Street, between a church and some homes, and was unaware he was trespassing until he was confronted and ordered to leave by two uniformed police officers April 27.
The lawsuit alleges the male officer removed an item from his body and dropped it on the ground before the physical confrontation, speculating the item was the officer's body worn video camera. The law enforcement sources who spoke to NBCLA said they believed Castillo had struck the officer, knocking the camera to the ground before the cellphone recording began to capture the scene.
Castillo also claims, "The male DOE officer began to violently strike Plaintiff in his face, head, and body, despite the fact that Plaintiff was compliant, cooperative, non-resisting, non-dangerous, unarmed, and non-threatening."
The complaint also accuses the male officer of spitting into Castillo's face during the attack.
The LAPD does not comment on the merits of pending lawsuits, as a department policy.
Both LAPD officers began recording with their department issued body-worn-video cameras before the violent encounter, and both cameras captured video and audio that goes far beyond what has been seen and heard on the cellphone recording, the sources said.
One source who had viewed the police video said the man defied officers' directions and appeared to take a fighting stance before the eyewitness video begins.
The LAPD was expected to make portions of the body worn video recordings public this week, the sources said.
Chief Michel Moore said he had great concern about the incident, which was reclassified as a more serious internal investigation after a supervisor at the Hollenbeck station was shown the eyewitness cellphone video.
Moore told the LA Police Commission May 5 that while he was withholding judgment on the officer's conduct, and he understood why the incident had drawn so much attention.
“I recognize the public’s concern, and how disturbed or troubling this may be to them,” Moore said.
The LAPD has not yet confirmed the identity of the officer involved in the Boyle Heights confrontation. NBCLA verified the officer's name through a variety of law enforcement sources, public records and court records.
Hernandez joined the LAPD in the late 1990s and during his career shot 3 people in 3 separate on-duty incidents. All 3 of the shootings were deemed legally justified by the LA County District Attorney's Office, though at least one was found to have violated internal LAPD rules for when officers are allowed to use deadly force, according to official records and published accounts.
Hernandez's attorney, who also declined to confirm that Hernandez is the officer in the Boyle Heights video, told NBCLA that he believed the officer would be cleared of any wrongdoing.
"Whenever an officer uses force, it's never pretty," attorney David Winslow said last week. "The suspect was substantially larger than the officer, younger and in better shape," Winslow said. "This isn't a police officer bullying someone who's smaller than him. This is an officer defending himself."
Last Thursday, a group of demonstrators gathered outside the LAPD's Hollenbeck Station, demanding the officer involved be fired. About a dozen protesters carried signs and chanted.