Latino leaders here Monday demanded a federal investigation of what they contend was a brutal, unprovoked attack on five Mexican nationals by San Bernardino County sheriff's deputies.
A three-minute videotape of the June 30 incident in Victorville, made by an unidentified witness, was shown to reporters Monday afternoon. The video, which does not reveal how the incident began, shows deputies kicking and clubbing some of the men and appears to contradict statements made by the deputies in official reports.
Maria Anna Gonzales, spokeswoman for a civil rights group that has the videotape, the Congress for United Communities, said a federal investigation is called for and that a formal report would be filed with the FBI and the Mexican Consulate this week.
Meanwhile, San Bernardino County Assistant Sheriff Ernie De Laurie said his department launched its own internal investigation of the incident a week ago based on community complaints.
"We've been investigating this for over a week," said De Laurie, who did not learn of the existence of the videotape until Monday. "We have not viewed the tape, so we can't comment on it. We'd have liked to have seen it earlier."
But Gonzales said the tape was deliberately kept secret "until we could get depositions from the victims and the witnesses."
Armando Navarro, president of the group, asserted that the incident involves violations of U.S. civil rights laws and "we're going to the highest authorities with our complaint." Gonzales added that Latino leaders were mistrustful of sheriff's officials, who they claim have not dealt forcefully with deputies accused of brutality.
Felix Diaz, a member of the Victor Valley High School District Board of Trustees, said the incident adds to a long history of racial tension between Latinos and law enforcement authorities in the high-desert community.
"I was born and raised in Victorville . . . and in years past, the police would shove us around," Diaz said. "Now, they are getting more brutal, especially with undocumented people because they think they cannot defend themselves."
He added that "this video was a miracle."
"It was the thing we needed. They can't lie to us now," Diaz said.
The city, which has no police force of its own, contracts with the Sheriff's Department to handle law enforcement. Victorville Mayor Jeff Goodwill said the City Council is considering a proposal to create its own police force.
"Who is going to guard the guardians? That is the issue we face in Victorville," Goodwill said. "This type of police behavior is not going to continue in this town."
Sheriff's authorities denied that any group of people has been singled out for tougher enforcement. But they also acknowledged that accounts by witnesses of the incident do not agree.
According to reports filed by deputies, they responded to a report of a loud party at a house on 5th Street in Victorville. None of the deputies could be reached for comment.
Arrested at the scene were Jose Serrano, 27, who rented the house; Victor Serrano, 24; Efron Serrano, 49; Arro Ruiz, 38, and Domingo Garcia, 20. Of the five men, only Jose Serrano was charged with a crime: resisting arrest and possession of cocaine, according to his attorney, Nick DePrisco. The other four were released pending an investigation. One of them, however, was deported to Mexico and has not been located, Gonzales said.
Deputies' reports said that after deputies repeatedly asked the men to go inside the house, Jose Serrano pushed a deputy and was wrestled to the ground.
As they scuffled, "some of the other people there started to kick" the deputies "to help their friend," sheriff's spokesman John Gocke said.
"Our guys called for additional units," Gocke said. "One of the other deputies there used a night stick to keep other suspects from making further advancements against the officers."
In the video, a deputy can be seen hitting Jose Serrano several times with a baton after handcuffing his hands behind his back. After Serrano was dragged to the street by his feet, he was hit again, this time on the knees. The clubbing was not mentioned in the deputies' reports.
Navarro and Gonzales noted that the Mexicans appeared docile in the video and made no threatening moves.
Screaming in Protest
The video also shows Serrano's father, Efron Serrano, screaming in protest of the violence while sitting against a fence with his arms stretched above his head. Moments later, one of the deputies can be seen striking the front of his body with a baton.
"If there was wrongdoing, it happened before I got there," said Gocke, who apparently arrived at the scene after the alleged attack. "If the videotape contradicts (deputies' statements), so be it. We will have to take necessary action."