L.A. firefighter who struck handcuffed patient accepts suspension as video is released
A Los Angeles firefighter who struck a restrained detainee in the head — and pulled a towel tightly around his face, prompting him to yell, “I can’t breathe!” — has accepted a 12-day suspension for his actions, according to internal Fire Department records reviewed by The Times. The development comes as a new video shows some details of the incident.
Derek Farrow, who was working as an emergency medical technician when the incident occurred in March 2019, informed officials that he would accept the punishment through a union representative on Aug. 26 — one day after The Times published a story about Farrow continuing to work for nearly a year and a half without punishment.
Farrow had previously rejected the suspension and notified the department that he intended to fight the punishment before a disciplinary panel. He said the detainee had bitten a police officer and was spitting at medical staff.
Such a proceeding would have opened the case up to broader public scrutiny at a time when tensions are high in Los Angeles and elsewhere over police use of force. Farrow is white and the man he is accused of punching is Black.
The handling of the incident has raised questions within the Fire Department and across city government about how firefighters are disciplined when they violate policy, and about policies and rules that keep such incidents from public view.
The Farrow case came to light because The Times received a tip and then access to internal documents, including a report that said the firefighter’s actions might have violated state law.
The records provided a rough sketch of what happened but left out many details. In recent days, and particularly after The Times published an article about the case, fire officials have been more forthcoming and started releasing more public records.
Surveillance camera video from Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center on March 20, 2019, released to The Times this week, captures part of what occurred. It shows Farrow standing over detainee Earl Hatton’s gurney and wrapping a towel around Hatton’s head and face at two different points — once to forcefully pull Hatton’s head onto the gurney.
An unidentified Los Angeles Police Department officer also is seen throwing the towel over Hatton’s face.
The video does not show Farrow hitting Hatton, but other videos recorded by LAPD body cameras do show the firefighter striking Hatton, according to Fire Department records obtained by The Times. The newspaper requested copies of the police body camera footage two weeks ago; the LAPD has yet to release it.
Farrow referred questions about the case to his union spokesman, Domingo Albarran Jr., who said Farrow maintains he did nothing wrong but “doesn’t feel that he’s going to get a fair” disciplinary hearing, now that the case has been made public and given “the societal climate right now around all the things involved.”
Like other cities across the U.S., Los Angeles has been shaken this summer by large protests against police brutality toward Black people, with demonstrators demanding more severe punishments for officers who harm detainees or others on the street.
Farrow told Fire Department investigators last year that he struck Hatton “in a split second” to stop the man from biting a police officer, according to Fire Department documents released this week to The Times. Farrow said he put the towel on the detainee’s face to protect himself and others from Hatton, who he said was aggressively spitting.
He also said Hatton was yelling racial slurs, and shouting that he had multiple communicable diseases and wanted to make sure he infected the firefighters and police officers around him.
The hospital videos released to The Times on Thursday do not have sound and do not show Hatton biting an officer.
Descriptions of separate LAPD body-camera footage in Fire Department records say that those videos capture an officer saying he was bitten, and show him “rolling up his uniform sleeve to look at his left arm.” The records say they also show Farrow “twisting the towel around” Hatton’s head, and Farrow striking Hatton twice with his right hand.
The incident occurred after Farrow helped transfer Hatton from the LAPD’s 77th Street Station to the jail ward at County-USC. Hatton had suffered a small cut on his forehead from purposefully banging his head inside a police car, the LAFD records say.
Hatton, 24, had been arrested that morning on suspicion of assaulting a woman with a brick and resisting arrest, and he was later convicted and sentenced to four years in prison — where he remains. He could not be reached for comment, and the public defender’s office, which represented him, has declined to comment.
Fire officials have not commented on the Farrow case in detail, saying it is a personnel matter, but released documents and the County-USC video this week in response to public records requests from The Times.
Farrow’s 12-day suspension covers six shifts because of the nature of firefighter schedules.
Fire Department records show that an investigation by the department’s Professional Standards Division found a preponderance of evidence that Farrow had used unauthorized force against Hatton, who was handcuffed, in leg restraints and strapped to a gurney. The incident was reported to officials the same day it occurred, according to Fire Department records.
Farrow told investigators that Hatton had bitten through two spit hoods. He admitted to wrapping a towel around Hatton’s face, despite it being against department policy, and said he at one point used an open hand to stop Hatton from biting the officer, according to an investigative report.
After being shown footage from the incident that captured him using a closed fist, Farrow admitted to punching Hatton, the report said.
Farrow also told investigators that he would wrap a towel around a patient’s face again if presented with a similar situation, according to the report.
“Farrow said if a towel was his only option he would use a towel again to prevent a patient from spitting on LAFD personnel and possibly spreading a disease,” the report said.
Investigators dismissed Farrow’s explanations for why he had punched Hatton, calling the use of force “excessive and unauthorized.” They also dismissed his reasons for using the towel, calling it “improper” and “a concern in terms of proper patient care.”
Albarran said that, in striking Hatton, Farrow had “reacted in the best manner, in the true tradition of the Los Angeles Fire Department,” because he “felt he was protecting someone.”
While using a towel on a patient’s face is not a sanctioned practice, firefighters do use them in that way “as a last resort,” Albarran said.
Another firefighter at the scene, Abraham Cuervo-Mitchell, said in a statement to The Times that Farrow “acted in the best way he knew given the extreme circumstance of the situation.”
Farrow’s use of the towel prompted the department to instruct firefighters at Farrow’s fire station on how to properly handle agitated patients, Farrow told investigators. Police investigators reviewed the case — though the LAPD would not disclose its findings — and it also was flagged to county officials who oversee city emergency medical technicians.
Dr. Marc Eckstein, commander of the Fire Department’s emergency medical services, had expressed his own concerns about Farrow’s actions in a letter to a county health director, Dr. Marianne Gausche-Hill, in October, writing that the firefighter’s actions may have violated state law against the abuse of patients.
County officials said protocols require fire departments to alert the county Emergency Medical Services Agency to allegations of misconduct against EMTs, so that it can assess the appropriateness of punishments. The agency has the authority to suspend a firefighter’s EMT certification.
In a statement to The Times on Friday, Gausche-Hill said she reviewed the circumstances of the Farrow case, including the fact that he had no record of misconduct before the March 2019 incident, and determined “that no additional action on his certification is indicated by state guidelines. EMS will be closing this matter from further investigation.”
Some say the handling of the case highlights larger structural problems in the way firefighters are disciplined.
Fire Commissioner Jimmie Woods-Gray said the Farrow case underscored the need for reforms in the department, such as requiring firefighters to wear body cameras and creating an independent authority to investigate allegations of misconduct.
She also faulted the department for not informing the commission of the allegations against Farrow until after The Times reported on them.
“None of the commissioners were aware of that issue,” she said. “It was very disturbing to us commissioners that we hadn’t heard about it before.”
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.