Sheriff's Commander Alleges Whistleblower Retaliation in Use-of-Force Case

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LOS ANGELES (CNS) - A sheriff's department commander filed a damages claim against Los Angeles County today 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.

At his news conference last month, Villanueva denied that he was involved in any type of coverup, insisting that he did not see the video until November, when he immediately ordered that the deputy involved be relieved of duty and that a criminal investigation be initiated.

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.

``There was a use of force investigation, an administrative investigation,'' Villanueva said. ``It was initiated roughly in the time frame it should have been initiated. However, along the way early on, something did not happen, which was a vetting of this case for a possible criminal investigation. ... That did not happen when it was supposed to happen.

``So this case lingered through the administrative process, but along the way, many people, including senior executives in my administration saw this. And what concerns me is they actually saw the information and they did not hit the stop button and say, `Hey, we have to take a look at this in a different light and the right light, and do both a criminal and administrative investigation.' That did not happen.''

Villanueva said the administrative investigator ultimately determined he could not complete his work absent a criminal investigation, and it wasn't until that request was made that he became aware of the altercation and the video. He said that occurred on Nov. 18, 2021.

He said he ordered the criminal investigation into the deputy's actions, which has since been referred to the District Attorney's Office for consideration of possible charges.

The sheriff said his chief of staff conducted an internal review of how the case was handled from the beginning, and as a result, ``administrative action'' was taken that has led to changes in his command staff.

``We have information that there was some efforts to try to suppress the nature of this investigation from being moved forward and being moved up the food chain for its proper disposition, and so we had to launch another investigation,'' he said.

Castellano contends in his damages claim that despite the sheriff's assertion that the deputy involved was relieved of duty in November, that actually didn't happen until Dec. 7. He also claims he was subjected to an internal investigation after raising concerns about the handling of the matter and was reprimanded for lapses in how the case was handled.

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