Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva conceded Tuesday that procedural errors were made in the internal investigation of an altercation in which a deputy knelt on a handcuffed inmate's head for three minutes, but he said he immediately ordered a criminal probe into the deputy once he became aware of it.
The altercation, first reported last week by the Los Angeles Times, occurred on March 10, 2021, at the San Fernando Courthouse, where a 24-year-old inmate named Enzo Escalante allegedly punched sheriff's Deputy Douglas Johnson in the face. Johnson and other deputies wrestled Escalante to the ground, with Johnson putting his knee on the inmate's head.
Security video of the altercation, a portion of which was posted online by The Times, shows Johnson keeping his knee on Escalante's head for three minutes after he was handcuffed and did not appear to be resisting.
According to an internal report cited by The Times, sheriff's Cmdr. Allen Castellano suggested officials within the department tried to suppress details and video of the altercation, "given its nature and its similarities to widely publicized George Floyd use of force." George Floyd died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes, sparking national protests.
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Eli Vera, a sheriff's commander who is running against Villanueva in the upcoming election, told The Times the sheriff viewed the video of the altercation days after it occurred.
But Villanueva on Tuesday denied that accusation, insisting he did not see the video until November, when he immediately ordered that the deputy involved be relieved of duty and that a criminal investigation be initiated.
The sheriff said such an internal criminal investigation should have been started immediately, concurrent with an administrative probe, but it didn't happen.
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"There was a use of force investigation, an administrative investigation," Villanueva said. "It was initiated roughly in the time frame it should have been initiated. However, along the way early on, something did not happen, which was a vetting of this case for a possible criminal investigation. … That did not happen when it was supposed to happen.
"So this case lingered through the administrative process, but along the way, many people, including senior executives in my administration saw this. And what concerns me is they actually saw the information and they did not hit the stop button and say, 'Hey, we have to take a look at this in a different light and the right light, and do both a criminal and administrative investigation.' That did not happen."
Villanueva said the administrative investigator ultimately determined he could not complete his work absent a criminal investigation, and it wasn't until that request was made that he became aware of the altercation and the video. He said that occurred on Nov. 18, 2021.
He said he ordered the criminal investigation, which has since been referred to the District Attorney's Office for consideration of possible charges.
The sheriff said his chief of staff conducted an internal review of how the case was handled from the beginning, and as a result, "administrative action" was taken that has led to changes in his command staff.
"We have information that there was some efforts to try to suppress the nature of this investigation from being moved forward and being moved up the food chain for its proper disposition, and so we had to launch another investigation," he said.