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California

L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva reinstates a second deputy fired for misconduct

LOS ANGELES, CA-MARCH 6, 2019: Sheriff Alex Villanueva speaks during a news conference to discuss th
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

The deputy charged onto the scene and kicked the door of a truck, threatening to shoot the man inside. After yanking the man onto the ground, the lawman punched him several times in his back and shoulders as other officers wrangled the suspect onto his stomach and into handcuffs, according to law enforcement reports.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department fired the deputy, Michael Courtial, last June, concluding he used unreasonable force and failed to use de-escalation techniques in the 2016 incident in Lancaster.

Now, Courtial has been newly granted a badge and gun after Sheriff Alex Villanueva reinstated him as a deputy during his first few months in office, the Sheriff’s Department said Wednesday in response to inquiries by The Times.

Villanueva has faced sharp criticism over his rehiring in recent months of another deputy, Caren Carl Mandoyan, who was discharged for violating department policies regarding domestic violence and making false statements to internal investigators.

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Villanueva told the Board of Supervisors on March 12 that he had only reinstated one deputy — Mandoyan — and that he would hold off on any other reinstatements.

While some deputies have hailed the new sheriff’s actions, others including county supervisors and department watchdogs have expressed alarm that he may be moving away from reforms imposed after a massive corruption scandal rocked the department several years ago.

Villanueva, in a statement, said the division-level process to reinstate Courtial followed a long-standing policy and included the input of county counsel. Officials decided Courtial’s actions did not justify the discipline that was originally imposed, the statement said.

“While the video and actions of my deputy sheriff should have been more in line with the policies and standards that I expect, I believe that a fair review of the case was conducted and that the appropriate administration action was taken,” Villanueva said, referring to footage cited by investigators.

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Villanueva, in his statement, said the settlement was done without his involvement. Department spokeswoman Nicole Nishida said she could not immediately say on which date Courtial was reinstated.

Courtial’s attorney, Adam Marangell, said his client reached a settlement with the Sheriff’s Department and subsequently withdrew an appeal of his firing from the Civil Service Commission on Feb. 21. The commission did not hear Courtial’s case or make a determination on it.

“I believe Deputy Courtial was not afforded the due process under the previous sheriff that was to be expected and his reinstatement was completely justified,” Marangell said.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has taken the unprecedented step of going to court to try to block Mandoyan’s rehiring, arguing that the sheriff doesn’t have the authority to override decisions by the county Civil Service Commission, which upheld the deputy’s termination. Mandoyan had served as a volunteer on Villanueva’s election campaign, though the sheriff denies any quid pro quo. It has become a heated political issue since The Times revealed Mandoyan’s rehiring and the circumstances of his dismissal in 2016.

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl says Villanueva also doesn’t have the power to circumvent the board by entering into a legal settlement to give a fired deputy his job back, regardless of whether the Civil Service Commission weighed in on the case.

“I’m disappointed the sheriff hired back someone who committed this excessive force, and that the sheriff doesn’t understand he cannot settle these cases and rehire people on his own,” said Kuehl. She said only the board can authorize those types of settlements.

Courtial was one of several deputies who responded to a call just after midnight on July 21, 2016, about a man who was seen trying to break into vehicles along Elm Avenue in Lancaster. A witness called 911 after the man, who was acting belligerently, entered the back of an occupied pickup truck, according to a memo by the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office.

Two deputies approached the truck, ready to deploy a Taser, and requested backup because of the man’s large size, the memo says.

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Courtial suddenly charged toward the vehicle and kicked it without acknowledging the other deputies, according to the memo. He opened a door to the truck and ordered the man not to move, shouting that he would shoot him if he disobeyed. Courtial told one of his fellow deputies to use the Taser on the man, and the deputy complied, before Courtial dragged the man out of the truck and onto the ground, the memo says.

Courtial punched the man several times as he yanked him out of the truck and continued striking him in the back and shoulders when the man was on his stomach, according to the document. The man was resisting deputies and had his right hand under his body, the memo says.

The man, who was found to have a blood-alcohol level of .209, was hospitalized and treated for a traumatic brain injury, scrapes, a bone chip fracture and Taser dart wounds. The memo said it was impossible to know whether all of the injuries were caused by the deputies because man said he head-butted someone while riding a bicycle just before the incident.

The district attorney’s office declined to prosecute Courtial for assault under color of authority or vandalism, finding that the man was actively resisting deputies when Courtial used force. Prosecutors also noted Courtial’s kicking of the truck “could reasonably be construed as part of the suspect’s arrest,” reasoning that there was insufficient evidence to show the deputy acted maliciously, according to the memo.

Still, the district attorney’s office found Courtial’s actions to be excessive.

“It must be noted that Courtial’s unilateral and unnecessary property damage and initiation of force, while ultimately lawful, was unnecessary in the situation with which he was confronted. The scene which he entered was already secured by two other deputies whom Courtial ignored to act on his own,” prosecutors wrote.

The Sheriff’s Department found Courtial violated several department policies, including ones governing de-escalation and unreasonable force.

“You used force which was unreasonable and/or unnecessary and/or excessive … when you punched [the man] numerous times after throwing him to the ground while there were adequate personnel on scene to control [him],” wrote North Patrol Division Chief John Benedict in a disciplinary letter to Courtial, which is partially redacted.

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The letter was released Wednesday by the Civil Service Commission under a landmark transparency law that opens up some records of police misconduct, including cases involving serious use of force.

Villanueva often spoke during his campaign of creating a “truth and reconciliation” panel to hear the cases of deputies and members of the public who believed they’d been wronged by the Sheriff’s Department. Mandoyan’s case was reviewed by such a panel, but the Sheriff’s Department said Courtial’s was not.

Courtial is now assigned to the Palmdale station.

maya.lau@latimes.com

Twitter: @mayalau


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