LOS ANGELES | The Los Angeles County sheriff says a bystander’s cellphone footage showing a deputy violently tackling a woman while she filmed a man being handcuffed, then pepper-spraying her in the face, is “disturbing,” and community groups on Wednesday called for the department’s new chief to hold his agency accountable.
The June 24 incident in the city of Lancaster follows several cases that have drawn scrutiny to the department amid allegations of excessive use of force by its deputies. It’s also testing the reform efforts of the new sheriff, Robert Luna, a former Long Beach police chief who has vowed to overhaul the nation’s largest sheriff’s department since taking it over in December after defeating incumbent Alex Villanueva.
Both officers were pulled off field duty, Luna said during an afternoon news conference, and could face discipline ranging from letters of reprimand all the way up to dismissal if misconduct is found. He didn’t identify the deputies.
Luna said he didn’t learn about the encounter until six days after it occurred. The department released footage from the deputies’ body-worn cameras on Monday.
Luna said he had seen the body-camera video as well as bystander video that spread on social media.
“It’s disturbing. There’s no ifs and buts about it,” the sheriff said.
The Associated Press’ efforts to reach the bystander Wednesday were not immediately successful.
The sheriff said his department has opened an investigation into the deputies’ use of force and had notified the county’s Civilian Oversight Commission and also federal monitors, who are overseeing reforms that the department agreed to in 2015. That agreement settled federal allegations that deputies in the Antelope Valley, including Lancaster, had engaged in excessive use of force and racially-biased policing that included disproportionately stopping or searching Blacks and Latinos.
The couple, whose names were not released, reportedly matched the descriptions of robbers targeting a grocery store in Lancaster, 72 kilometers (45 miles) northeast of Los Angeles, the sheriff’s department said. The body-cam video shows the man sitting on a large rock outside the store and holding a cake before deputies handcuff him as the woman stands a few feet away filming the encounter.
One deputy is seen tackling the woman to the ground. “Get on the ground!” he can be heard shouting as he pins her down with his knee on her neck and shoulder. “Stop or you’ll get punched in the face!”
The woman is heard yelling “I can’t breathe!” as the deputy is seen pepper-spraying her in the face. She screams, “I didn’t do nothin’!” and the man repeatedly tells the other deputy that she has cancer.
At his news conference, Luna said the deputies were responding to a robbery in progress after receiving a 911 call from a store employee saying that two customers were assaulting “loss prevention employees.”
Stores hire such employees to deter shoplifters and damage.
Luna said it appeared that the man and woman were both involved in the confrontation inside the market but that their relationship wasn’t clear.
The woman was treated at a hospital after complaining of pain to her eyes after being pepper-sprayed, and she also had scrapes to her arms, the sheriff said.
The man was arrested and cited for resisting for delaying an officer, petty theft or attempted petty theft and interfering with a business, while the woman was cited for assaulting an officer and battery after assaulting loss prevention personnel, Luna said.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether they had lawyers who could comment for them.
Tom Yu, an attorney representing the deputy who tackled the woman, says his client took her “down to the ground due to her being resistant.”
“Deputies are trained to take suspects who resist to the ground in order to gain compliance and to safely handcuff the suspect,” Yu said in an email on Wednesday.
Yu said his client “approached” the woman to detain her. She replied, “you can’t touch me,” the lawyer said.
“This was the beginning of the ensuing use of force,” Yu wrote.
Yu also declined to release his client’s name, reiterating that the department had not done so either.
Villanueva’s tenure was tainted by accusations that so-called deputy gangs proliferated under his watch. The groups are accused of a variety of misconduct dating back decades, from controlling sheriff’s stations and the jails, to harassing other deputies and the communities they police, to harming or fatally shooting civilians as part of gang rituals.
Villanueva resisted efforts from the county’s inspector general and a civilian oversight commission to address the cliques. The former sheriff downplayed their role in the department and refused to answer the commission’s subpoenas to testify about the gangs under oath.
The department was years behind other police agencies in outfitting its deputies with body-worn cameras, bringing them on board in 2020. The neighboring Los Angeles Police Department, in contrast, first gave the technology to its officers in 2016.
Associated Press news researcher Randy Herschaft in New York contributed to this report.