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Fearing bad publicity, LASD covered up case of deputy who knelt on inmate’s head

VIDEO | 01:56
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department use of force

Los Angeles County sheriff’s officials attempted to hide an incident in which a deputy kneeled on the head of an inmate for three minutes while the man was handcuffed.

Los Angeles County sheriff’s officials attempted to cover up an incident in which a deputy knelt on the head of a handcuffed inmate for three minutes because they feared the “negative light” it could shed on the department, according to internal records reviewed by The Times.

Department officials were worried about the optics of the kneeling, “given its nature and its similarities to widely publicized George Floyd use of force,” a commander who was critical of the cover-up wrote in an internal force review.

Those officials decided not to pursue criminal charges against the inmate, who had punched the deputy in the face, to avoid drawing attention to the incident, according to the report by the commander, Allen Castellano.

Castellano was subsequently targeted with an administrative investigation, two Sheriff’s Department sources told The Times.

The March 2021 incident came at a time of intense scrutiny of the agency over allegations of controversial shootings, gang-like groups of deputies controlling stations, and resistance to oversight from Sheriff Alex Villanueva.

Less than two months earlier, the California attorney general had announced an investigation into whether the deputies routinely violate people’s constitutional rights.

A Sheriff’s Department spokesperson said Villanueva found out about the incident in October and immediately ordered a criminal investigation into the deputy, who was relieved of duty.

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But Eli Vera, a commander who oversees court services where the incident occurred, said Villanueva viewed the video at an aide’s desk within days of the incident.

Vera is running against Villanueva for sheriff and is retiring next week.

The move by the civilian commission overseeing the Sheriff’s Department represents a major step in efforts to scrutinize the groups.

“Under ordinary circumstances, I would expect the Sheriff’s Department to have prosecuted this case,” said Inspector General Max Huntsman, who provides oversight of the agency, referring to the decision not to pursue charges against the inmate.

“The fact that they didn’t raises a red flag to the possibility … that the motivation was preventing bad press as alleged,” he said, adding that the incident should be investigated by an outside agency.

The incident happened on the morning of March 10, 2021, two days after jury selection had begun in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who would be convicted of murdering Floyd by kneeling on his neck.

At the San Fernando Courthouse, deputies were conducting routine searches of a group of inmates before their court appearances, the internal records show.

Top watchdog for the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department has identified dozens of deputies who are allegedly members of gang-like groups that operate out of two stations.

Two of the inmates were talking, and deputies told them to be quiet.

As the pair continued talking and laughing, Deputy Douglas Johnson ordered one of them, Enzo Escalante, to stop and face the wall, according to Johnson’s report on the incident.

Escalante, 24, was awaiting trial on multiple charges, including murder.

Security video obtained by The Times shows Johnson walking closely behind Escalante through a hallway before ushering him toward a wall.

Escalante turns around and punches Johnson in the face multiple times.

The second inmate approaches them and is swept away by two other deputies. Johnson and other deputies take Escalante to the ground, positioning him face-down.

Twenty seconds into the fight, Johnson puts his knee on Escalante’s head.

About 30 seconds later, a deputy — one of four hovering over Escalante — handcuffs him.

After that, Escalante is lying still, his hands cuffed behind his back, and appears to be compliant. Even so, Johnson keeps his knee on Escalante’s head for three more minutes.

Deputies eventually “hobble” Escalante, tying his legs together before lifting him onto a wheelchair and strapping him in, the video shows.

Records show Escalante was taken to a hospital for treatment of minor injuries, including contusions to both ears and abrasions on his neck.

Johnson, who could not be reached for comment, played an important role in a photo-sharing scandal after basketball superstar Kobe Bryant and eight others died in a helicopter crash. He said he had legitimate reason to take the photos of the crash site, which were shared among deputies.

In the weeks and months that followed, Johnson’s use of force went through several levels of internal review.

Sheriff’s officials were strongly disapproving of Johnson’s tactics, with a sergeant determining that Johnson applied pressure to the inmate’s head for an “unreasonable amount” of time and a lieutenant calling the restraint tactic unnecessary, as the inmate “no longer offered any resistance.”

A captain called the force unreasonable and said the two senior deputies at the scene failed to supervise.

Castellano, the commander, was the most critical.

He wrote in his force review that Johnson’s decision to physically engage Escalante in the hallway “placed other deputies and inmates in a dangerous situation” and that Johnson could have ignored provocative language from Escalante to avoid escalating the encounter.

He also wrote that Johnson maintained pressure on Escalante’s head even though the inmate wasn’t resisting. He said two supervising deputies failed to intervene.

Johnson wrote in a report that he had been trying to “control Inmate Escalante from thrashing around and striking me or another deputy.”

However, Castellano wrote, Johnson maintained his position for several minutes without signs of Escalante physically resisting: “There appeared to be ample time for Deputy Johnson to reposition himself and still control Inmate Escalante, who was handcuffed and hobbled, while maintaining awareness of his surroundings.”

Castellano noted that there was a request to complete the use-of-force review in three days — much shorter than is typical — from a level above his division chief.

Villanueva, the undersheriff and three assistant sheriffs are the only officials ranking above the division chief.

Castellano also wrote that Custody Investigative Services, which investigates crimes in the lockups, was involved in the decision not to seek charges against Escalante for punching Johnson.

“It was determined the case should not be filed given the misconduct/unreasonable force allegation and the potential for this incident to shed negative light on the Department given its nature and its similarities to widely publicized George Floyd use of force,” he wrote.

He added: “The potential optics of an incident should not be a determining factor on whether or not a criminal complaint is filed.”

Castellano had requested that a case against Escalante be filed with the district attorney’s office. But as of July 2021, when he wrote the report, that had not been done, he wrote.

In an email, Castellano declined to comment and referred questions to the Sheriff’s Information Bureau, which handles media requests.

At some point, the Sheriff’s Department did take the Escalante case to the district attorney’s office. Earlier this year, prosecutors filed two counts of resisting an executive officer. Escalante has pleaded not guilty.

Vera said the department last fall opened administrative investigations into Castellano and, later, Capt. Robert Jones, who oversaw the San Fernando court and had concluded that the force by Johnson was unreasonable.

Jones did not respond to a request for comment.

Both Castellano and Jones had recommended an administrative investigation into Johnson and the supervising deputies.

The department alleged they should have done more by opening a criminal investigation to determine whether charges should be pursued against Johnson.

To do so, they would have needed a green light from a chief.

It’s unclear what, if any, discipline the pair received and for what policy violations. A Sheriff’s Department spokesperson said the investigation into management personnel has concluded and “appropriate administrative action was taken.”


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