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Handcuffed Black suspect said, ‘I can’t breathe,’ as L.A. firefighter allegedly struck him

Los Angeles Fire Department dispatcher
A complete account of the 2019 incident where a white Los Angeles Fire Department firefighter allegedly struck and tightened a towel around the head of a Black detainee who was handcuffed has not been made available. A police officer’s body camera captured the incident.
(Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

A white Los Angeles Fire Department firefighter allegedly struck and tightened a towel around the head of a Black detainee who was handcuffed on an ambulance gurney, causing the man to yell, “I can’t breathe,” according to internal city records reviewed by The Times.

The incident occurred about 17 months ago and came to light after recent inquiries by The Times. The episode was described in a letter prepared by the Fire Department’s top medical director, who said the firefighter might have violated a state law prohibiting abuse of a patient through the use of excessive force, the records show.

Dr. Marc Eckstein, commander of the Fire Department’s emergency medical services, expressed his concerns about the March 20, 2019, actions of firefighter Derek Farrow in a letter to a county health director, Dr. Marianne Gausche-Hill. In a second document, he said that he reviewed Los Angeles Police Department video footage of the incident.

After an internal review, L.A. Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas sought a 12-day suspension for Farrow, who is now appealing that judgment and is awaiting a discipline hearing, a department spokesman confirmed Monday.

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Eckstein wrote in the Oct. 7, 2019, letter that Farrow “appears to strike the patient twice in the head while the patient was restrained to the gurney by handcuffs and hobble restraints,” and could be seen holding “a towel over the patient’s head and forcefully tightening the towel to pin the patient’s head down to the gurney.”

“During the audio portion of the video, the patient is yelling, ‘I can’t breathe,’” Eckstein wrote.

Eckstein’s correspondence does not describe any actions that occurred before Farrow allegedly striking the patient.

Terrazas said Friday in a text message that the department handled Farrow’s case “following all established protocols and procedures.”

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“The incident was referred to the LAFD by law enforcement and no criminal complaint was filed,” Terrazas said, referring to the LAPD.

Farrow didn’t respond to requests for comment. Freddy Escobar, president of the L.A. firefighters union, confirmed that Farrow asked for a Board of Rights hearing but declined to discuss the facts of the case.

“I’m sure there’s a lot of stuff that’s not being told, and that’s not fair,” he said.

A complete account of the 2019 incident has not been made available. A police officer’s body camera captured the incident, and The Times filed a public records request last week for the footage, which has not yet been provided. Police officials declined to provide other documents related to the case.

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Fire Department officials declined to provide more details, calling Farrow’s case a personnel issue.

The incident occurred while the detained suspect, Earl Hatton, 24, was being moved on the gurney from the ambulance entrance to the jail ward at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, according to the records.

The ambulance had picked him up at the Los Angeles Police Department’s 77th Street station, the records say. It could not be immediately determined why he needed medical treatment.

Hatton had been arrested that morning on suspicion of assaulting a woman with a brick and resisting arrest, according to LAPD officials and court records. He was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon and resisting a police officer and is now serving a four-year term in state prison at San Luis Obispo.

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Eckstein wrote that Farrow was already the subject of an internal investigation, but that he was notifying Gausche-Hill because “his actions may constitute a violation” of the state law.

Eckstein referred interview requests to a department spokesman.

Farrow has remained on duty since the incident, officials said.

News of the incident comes at a time of nationwide anger over policing and the in-custody treatment of Black people.

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George Floyd repeatedly said “I can’t breathe” as he was detained by Minneapolis police officers, one of whom knelt on his neck for nearly eight minutes. The phrase has become a rallying cry against police abuse and excessive force.

Floyd’s May 25 death was followed by massive protests around the country, including in L.A., where officials proposed new limits on the types of force that police can use to detain people.

Farrow’s hearing will be conducted by a Board of Rights, which is a panel of Fire Department supervisors that hear personnel cases and determine the appropriate discipline, if any.

Domingo Albarran Jr., Farrow’s representative in the union, declined to comment.

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Hatton could not immediately be reached for comment. The public defender’s office, which represented him in his criminal case, declined to comment.

Terrazas said they would not discuss the case in detail because it is a personnel matter. Open-government advocates, however, noted that California courts have lifted such privacy protections in cases in which significant wrongdoing is alleged.

“Public employees’ personnel files do not shield from the public complaints about their fitness for office if the complaints allege serious misconduct and appear to be ‘well founded,’ even if not conclusively established,” said Terry Francke, a founder of Californians Aware.

In another internal document reviewed by The Times, Eckstein stated that he viewed videos of the incident and understood “that what can be seen on the video may constitute physical abuse of the patient.”

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He wrote that Farrow “appears to strike the patient twice in the head while the patient is restrained by all four limbs.”

“The patient’s head and face are wrapped in a towel at the time,” Eckstein wrote.

He said in the document that Farrow “takes no actions to facilitate the patient’s breathing or otherwise address his concerns.”

It was not immediately clear from the records when the incident was first brought to the attention of Fire Department officials.

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However, an LAPD source familiar with the incident said LAPD officers reported a use of force by Farrow in a police report about Hatton’s arrest and transfer the same day.

Josh Rubenstein, a police spokesman, said officers had arrested Hatton early that morning after Hatton had assaulted a woman with a brick the night before. They also charged him with resisting arrest, as he was “very erratic and aggressive” with officers, kicking and threatening to spit on them, Rubenstein said.

He said officers reported using “non-categorical” force on Hatton, which the LAPD reviewed. Such force can be minor, and does not by definition lead to a person’s hospitalization or involve head strikes or neck restraints.

Rubenstein declined to describe the outcome of that review, or what led to Hatton requiring a medic that day.

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Gausche-Hill, the county emergency medical services director who was alerted to the allegations against Farrow in October, did not respond to requests for comment on the case, including what actions she took, if any, in response to Eckstein’s letter.

Asked about the case Monday, Mayor Eric Garcetti said he wasn’t aware of it. A spokeswoman for Garcetti said the mayor’s office expects a thorough review of the incident.

Representatives for L.A. County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey and City Atty. Mike Feuer said no case involving Farrow had been presented to their offices.

Times staff writers Matt Hamilton and Alene Tchekmedyian contributed to this report.


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