Arrested by police for a misdemeanor, he went home blind in one eye

Rafael Salgado poses for a portrait at his home in Hawthorne. Salgado says a Hawthorne police officer slammed his face into a locker where a key cut his eye open. The laceration has effectively cost him sight in one eye.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
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The pain radiating from Rafael Salgado’s right eye is making it hard to sleep. But the discomfort isn’t the only thing keeping him up at night.

Wearing a patch that’s covered the eye for weeks, the 42-year-old single father wonders whether he’ll ever be able to work again. Or drive. Or care for his teenage son and daughter.

Salgado has not been able to see out of the eye since May 3. On that night, Hawthorne police arrested him on suspicion of misdemeanor domestic violence at his home. Minutes later, while being led in handcuffs from a police cruiser to the city’s municipal jail, Salgado says, an officer shoved him toward a row of lockboxes for no reason.

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HAWTHORNE, CA - JUNE 01: Rafael Salgado poses for a portrait at his home on Tuesday, June 1, 2021 in Hawthorne, CA. Salgado claims in the process of being booked at Hawthorne Police Department his face was slammed into a locker where a key cut his eye open. The laceration has effectively cost him sight in one eye. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

According to hospital records, Salgado slammed into a “metal object,” suffering a laceration to his cornea. His right eyeball was described as “ruptured.”

Pictures taken that night show Salgado’s eye quickly ballooned into an angry purple oval, with crusted blood staining his cheek. He underwent surgery the next morning, but doctors warned it was unlikely he’d ever see out of the injured eye again, according to hospital records.

The gruesome injury was captured by a surveillance camera in the Police Department’s garage, according to Salgado’s civil attorney, Wesley Ouchi. He said the footage shows a police officer shoved his defenseless client face-first into a row of metal lockboxes, where officers are supposed to place their belongings before entering the city’s municipal lockup.

“We see the officer wind up with two arms and shove my client, who is handcuffed,” said Ouchi, who said he was allowed to view the footage by Hawthorne city officials but not given a copy of it. “He goes face-first into the lockboxes, and one of the metal keys goes through his eyelid and into his eye.”

Hawthorne police have described Salgado’s injury as an accident but have yet to release video of the incident or provide details of it to The Times in response to a public records request.

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“We are aware of the accident which occurred while Mr. Salgado was in our custody, during which he suffered an injury to his right eye,” the department said in a statement. “The City has been in communication with Mr. Salgado’s attorney regarding this. In addition, an administrative investigation into the circumstances of this incident has been initiated.”

Ouchi has filed a notice of claim, the first step toward a lawsuit against the department.

Salgado and Ouchi allege the incident amounted to police brutality. Greg Risling, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, said the agency is aware of the incident, but declined to elaborate.

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The office’s Justice Systems Integrity Division, which prosecutes law enforcement misconduct, is “looking into” the case, though it is unclear whether they have initiated a formal criminal investigation or sought copies of the video of Salgado’s injury, according to a law enforcement source with knowledge of the situation. The source spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter candidly.

Salgado told staff at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center that he’d consumed several drinks at a neighborhood bar before coming home and getting into an argument with his girlfriend, hospital records show. A short time later, several police officers arrived at his home, according to Salgado, who said neither he nor his girlfriend called them. Salgado said an officer then placed him under arrest, but refused to say why or identify himself.

Salgado and Ouchi declined to identify the woman or provide contact information for her, but denied all allegations of domestic violence. Beyond their initial statement, the Hawthorne Police Department declined to answer most questions posed by The Times about the case due to pending litigation. Police did not not say whether the woman was injured when they arrived on scene, or disclose who called them alleging domestic violence.

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Jail records show Salgado was booked on suspicion of domestic violence and resisting arrest. Police officials said the Hawthorne city attorney’s office is reviewing Salgado’s case for possible prosecution. Interim Hawthorne City Atty. Robert Kim did not respond to a call seeking comment.

After slamming into the lockbox, Salgado says, he was in “excruciating” pain and bleeding profusely from his right eye. He said he begged to be taken to a hospital, but instead an officer led him to a jail cell and offered him an ice pack.

“I had my eyes closed the whole time. I’m still in handcuffs, looking down, because I was afraid something else was going to happen,” Salgado said.

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In his notice of claim against the city, Ouchi identified the officers involved in Salgado’s arrest as Jeffrey Tysl, George Bukhin and Michael Jenks. Hawthorne police declined to identify the officers, but did not deny that the names included in Ouchi’s filing were accurate. Multiple attempts to contact each officer were unsuccessful.

Ouchi said a representative for the city attorney’s office told him the officer who shoved Salgado was Tysl, a Hawthorne police officer since 2009, who previously faced serious brutality allegations.

In 2014, Tysl was one of several officers named in a lawsuit filed by a deaf man who alleged Hawthorne police repeatedly hit him with a Taser, beat him and ultimately choked him unconscious while responding to a report of a suspicious person.

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Tysl and other officers found Jonathan Meister carrying items out of a yard toward his car, court records show. Meister had previously lived at the location and had permission to be there, but he was unable to communicate that to the officers, who did not understand sign language, according to the suit.

Officers attempted to grab Meister’s arms, causing him to panic and struggle in response, the lawsuit alleged. During the ensuing scuffle, Tysl allegedly punched Meister several times and placed him in a chokehold, while other officers repeatedly struck him with the stun gun, according to the lawsuit.

Tysl later admitted that he was aware Meister might have been deaf, but also said he was concerned Meister was lying about that to “get out of” being arrested, according to a copy of a deposition taken in the case. He also said he elbowed the man five times and did not deny choking him.

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Criminal charges against Meister were dismissed and the city settled the case for $350,000, according to John Burton, a civil attorney who represented Meister.

Tysl said he was not disciplined nor did he receive any internal criticism for his tactics, according to the deposition. He also said he felt he did nothing wrong and would not have apologized to Meister.

From 2016 to 2019, the Hawthorne Police Department received 24 complaints from citizens alleging officer misconduct, but sustained only one, according to data reported to the California Department of Justice.

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Salgado and his family have questioned why nearly seven hours elapsed between his injury and the moment he was seen by an eye surgeon. He was shoved into the lockboxes around 8:05 p.m., according to a time stamp on the footage reviewed by his attorney. But he did not arrive at a hospital until 9:30 p.m., records show.

Ouchi says jailhouse video shown to him by the city showed officers ignoring Salgado’s cries for help and, at one point, laughing at him.

Salgado was first taken to Centinela Hospital in Inglewood, where he says he was left handcuffed and shirtless in a hallway for roughly five hours. Several of Salgado’s relatives, some of whom work in hospital administration, said that police should have taken him to Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, the closest trauma ward in the area.

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In a statement to The Times, a spokeswoman for Centinela Hospital declined to comment specifically on Salgado’s case but noted the facility “is not a designated trauma facility, so when patients present with injuries and a higher level of care is required, a transfer is initiated.” Salgado did not arrive at UCLA until 3:23 a.m., records show.

“The injury to the [right] eye is severe and will result in permanent visual loss,” one physician wrote. “Without surgery, patient will likely lose the eye to infection.”

Medical experts said Salgado’s eyesight was probably damaged beyond repair upon impact.

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Dr. Philip R. Rizzuto, clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology who now teaches at Brown University, pointed to a study that showed injuries to the “globe” of the eye such as those sustained by Salgado “should be repaired” within 24 hours.

While an eye injury should always be treated as soon as possible, Rizzuto said, the “catastrophic” nature of Salgado’s injury probably played more of a role in his vision loss than the speed with which he was treated.

Salgado had previously been arrested by Hawthorne police on suspicion of driving while intoxicated in 2019, but said he held no ill will toward police before the night he lost sight in his right eye. He said he hopes by speaking out, he can prevent anyone else from experiencing the panic and pain he says he did.

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“I just want justice. I don’t want him to continue to do the same thing to other people,” he said. “Maybe he’s done it in the past.”

HAWTHORNE, CA - JUNE 01: Rafael Salgado and his family pose for a portrait at his home on Tuesday, June 1, 2021 in Hawthorne, CA. Salgado claims in the process of being booked at Hawthorne Police Department his face was slammed into a locker where a key cut his eye open. The laceration has effectively cost him sight in one eye. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

Salgado said his wife died of complications related to epilepsy in 2017, and now he’s worried his kids will suffer even more with him seriously injured. His younger sister, Ester, said the incident brought the realities of viral videos of police abuses into their family home.

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“It’s just so sad to know your life can change in an instant. You hear the stories … but you never think it’s going to happen to you. To your family,” she said. “There was no reason for him to get treated like that.”

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