A sheriff’s department commander filed a damages claim against Los Angeles County this week alleging he and others faced retaliation by Sheriff Alex Villanueva for challenging the agency’s handling of a video that shows a deputy kneeling on a handcuffed inmate’s head for three minutes.
The claim, a precursor to a lawsuit, also contests Villanueva’s timeline of events following the altercation, which occurred on March 10, 2021. In a news conference last month, Villanueva said he did not see surveillance video of the altercation until November, and he responded by immediately ordering a criminal investigation.
In his legal claim, Cmdr. Allen Castellano contends that Villanueva and at least three other agency executives saw the video within days of the incident, and the sheriff said he would “handle the matter,” noting that the department did “not need bad media at this time.”
Following news of the claim, Villanueva scheduled a news conference for Tuesday morning, when he plans to “discuss false claims” made in the filing, which the department attributed to “a disgruntled employee.”
The altercation, which was first reported by the Los Angeles Times, occurred at the San Fernando Courthouse, where a 24-year-old inmate named Enzo Escalante allegedly punched sheriff’s Deputy Douglas Johnson in the face. Johnson and other deputies wrestled Escalante to the ground, with Johnson putting his knee on the inmate’s head.
Security video of the altercation shows Johnson keeping his knee on Escalante’s head for three minutes after he was handcuffed and did not appear to be resisting.
After the incident, Castellano wrote an internal report suggesting that officials within the department tried to suppress details and video of the altercation, “given its nature and its similarities to widely publicized George Floyd use of force.” George Floyd died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes, sparking national protests.
In his new legal claim, Castellano claims that Villanueva orchestrated an effort to cover up the video, and later took retaliatory action against people in the department who raised questions about that effort or challenged what the commander called an attempt by the sheriff to change the timeline of when he first viewed the video.
The sheriff conceded that an internal criminal investigation should have been started immediately after the incident, concurrent with an administrative probe, but it didn’t happen—something he blamed on errors in judgment by others in the department.