The FBI and the Los Angeles Police Department are investigating two officers for allegedly beating a man during an arrest last summer that was captured on video and posted on the popular YouTube website.
The video of the Aug. 11 arrest in Hollywood shows an officer sitting on 23-year-old William Cardenas as a second officer places his knee on the man’s neck and punches him six times. Cardenas is lying on his back, waving his arms and yelling, “I can’t breathe!” Cardenas’ attorney, B. Kwaku Duren, said his client was treated at a hospital for black eyes, a split lip and facial bruises.
Police Chief William J. Bratton identified the first officer as Alexander Schlegel and the second officer, who struck Cardenas, as Patrick Farrell.
The chief called the video “disturbing,” but noted it captured only part of the event. Cardenas was charged with resisting officers, and a court commissioner in September found sufficient evidence to try him.
“It is very graphic video,” Bratton said Thursday. “But as to whether the actions of the officers were appropriate in light of what they were experiencing and the totality of the circumstances is what the investigation will determine.”
Bratton added, “It is quite clear while struggling, one of the officers struck the individual in the face ... but that is not life-threatening.”
The American Civil Liberties Union denounced the officers’ use of force and said it was particularly troubling that the incident came to light only because of the Internet.
“Californians are entitled to more transparency than a chance video,” said Ramona Ripston, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California. “YouTube is not an acceptable substitute for accountability.”
Bratton said the department launched its own criminal and administrative investigation, based on the officers’ report and witness interviews, the day of the arrest. The officers in their report said that Farrell had struck Cardenas in the face. Andre Birotte, the city Police Commission’s inspector general, is also investigating.
The department has been under a federal consent decree since 2001 in the wake of the Rampart police scandal. The decree requires the LAPD to thoroughly investigate all allegations of police abuse.
“All the steps of the consent decree have been complied with,” Bratton said. “That is the good news side. There is no taking away the beating itself.”
The video is the latest since the infamous 1991 beating of Rodney King to haunt the Los Angeles Police Department and call into question officer conduct. It was shot by a female bystander, who turned it over to Cardenas’ attorneys, Duren said Thursday. Duren shared the footage with CopWatchLA, a police watchdog group, which posted it on its website. Portions of the video appeared on YouTube on Oct. 18, police said, and according to the site, have received several thousands hits. The LAPD obtained the footage from the district attorney’s office and first viewed it in October, Bratton said.
The FBI opened a preliminary civil rights probe after the media drew attention to the video Thursday, an FBI spokeswoman said. Bratton said the two officers have been assigned to desk duty. Cardenas remains in jail. Jane Robison, the district attorney’s spokeswoman, said the office is reviewing whether to pursue the criminal case against him.
According to testimony at Cardenas’ preliminary hearing, Schlegel said he and his partner were in their patrol car when they spotted Cardenas drinking beer with two friends on the corner of Fountain Avenue and Gordon Street. Schlegel said he recalled that Cardenas had a warrant for failing to appear on a charge of receiving stolen property. In later testimony, a transcript of which was obtained by The Times, a gang expert identified Cardenas as a member of the Gordon Street Locos.
Farrell yelled for the men to put their hands up, but Cardenas took off and they chased him a short distance. Schlegel said he caught up with Cardenas, tripped him, then pushed him in the back, “causing him to fall forward, and his face bounced off the sidewalk.”
Schlegel said he got on top of Cardenas, who then tried to hit him with his right fist and left elbow. Schlegel said Farrell caught up to them and joined the struggle.
Schlegel said Cardenas was “grabbing at me, at my clothes. He grabs at my belt, I could feel my belt being tugged on, my holster move.” Farrell warned his partner to watch his gun and punched Cardenas twice, according to Schlegel. Cardenas complained two or three times that he couldn’t breathe, “but we’re not going to let him up. He’s gonna get away,” Schlegel testified.
The officer said he then used pepper spray on Cardenas and called for backup. The officer testified that he was cut on his right little finger and that Farrell hurt his left thumb and had difficulty closing his right hand, which also had a cut knuckle.
Cardenas’ attorneys provided the video to the court commissioner but did not give his side of the story, as is typical at a preliminary hearing, whose purpose is to test the strength of the prosecution’s case.
Duren said Thursday that the officers’ allegations that Cardenas was a gang member and resisted arrest were “ridiculous.”
“It is totally fabrication that he is gang member or resisted arrest,” Duren said. The attorney said Cardenas was employed as a mover and lives with his daughter, mother and sisters in Hollywood.
Commissioner Ronald Rose, in ordering Cardenas to trial, found that “the response of the officers was more than reasonable under the circumstances.”
Rose acknowledged the video was violent, but said, “The issue here is not whether the officers had to use force. The question is whether or not the defendant used force in resisting the lawful arrest, and I find that he did resist, using force.”
Rose went on, “The obligation of citizens is to stop and allow themselves to be arrested and not use force against the officers. And when a citizen chooses to use force against the officers, they are entitled to use force in return.”
Rose noted the officers did not draw their weapons in the video, and said there was no testimony they used a baton or weapon “which might have resulted in death or serious injury to this defendant. At worst, they used their fist and they used their spray.”
Gary Ingumenson, independent counsel for the Los Angeles Police Protective League, which provides police legal representation, said the officers appeared to have been using what are known as “distraction strikes,” a permissible tactic for subduing a resistant suspect.
“Police action recorded at poor quality from one angle frequently is unclear and misrepresents the story,” said Bob Baker of the Los Angeles Police Protective League. “This is why it is important to know all the facts in a case and not rush to judgment.”
But the ACLU’s Ripston said the LAPD’s handling of the incident had eroded public confidence in the department.
“The fact that this incident only came to light after being posted on a popular website dramatically illustrates how far we are from that ideal and that police reform still languishes,” she said.
Bratton said he was withholding judgment.
“Policing is often not pretty,” Bratton said. “Looking at a slice of [the video] makes it look less pretty, but my obligation is to wait until all the facts are in.”