3rd Whistleblower Accuses L.A. Sheriff of Excessive Force Cover-Up
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva covered up an excessive force incident where Deputy Douglas Johnson knelt on the head of a handcuffed prisoner for several minutes. Security video captured the incident and showed Johnson and two other deputies wrestle the prisoner to the ground. The deputies handcuffed the prisoner behind his back and the prisoner lay still on the ground. Johnson then placed his knee on the back of the prisoner’s neck and knelt there for more than three minutes. In the incident report, Johnson wrote that he knelt on the prisoner’s head to control the prisoner. But the video footage clearly shows that the prisoner was not moving or resisting while Johnson knelt with his full body weight on the prisoner’s head.
Internal Affairs Investigation
Internal affairs investigated the incident, but decided not to pursue charges to avoid drawing media attention to the altercation. Sheriff’s Commander Allen Castellano wrote in the internal affairs report that department officials were concerned about the kneeling “given its nature and its similarities to the widely publicized George Floyd use of force.” However, Castellano’s report criticized Johnson’s actions both before and during the incident, stating that Johnson “placed other deputies and inmates in a dangerous situation.” After Castellano issued his report, the department targeted him with an administrative investigation.
Nearly eight months later, Sheriff Villanueva ordered a criminal investigation into Johnson, who was then relieved of his duty. The department claimed that Villanueva learned about the incident for the first time just before he ordered the criminal probe. However, Commander Eli Vera said that Villanueva actually saw the video of the incident within days of its occurrence, but chose to bury the incident because he was running for reelection.
Castellano filed a lawsuit against Villanueva, claiming that he routinely blocked or impeded investigations and covered up misconduct to avoid bad press. Villanueva was running for reelection at that time. Castellano claimed that he sent the video of the incident to Assistant Sheriff Robin Limon immediately afterward. Limon watched the video with Villanueva one week later. Castellano claimed that Villanueva prevented internal affairs from investigating the incident for more than a month, and prevented the Criminal Investigations Bureau from reviewing the incident altogether.
Limon filed her own lawsuit against Villanueva too. Limon claimed that she watched the video with Villanueva just days after the incident, but that Villanueva said that “he would handle the matter” because “we (LASD) do not need bad media at this time.” Limon also alleged misconduct and retaliation in the department dating back several years.
On March 29, 2022, Villanueva held a press conference and admitted that his department covered up the incident. Villanueva accused Limon and former LASD Chief Lajuana Haselrig as spearheading the cover-up. Villanueva then gave Limon and Haselrig an ultimatum–either retire, or accept a demotion.
On Monday, Haselrig filed the third lawsuit against Villanueva. Haselrig alleges that she was forced to retire after a 34-year career with the department. Haselrig also confirmed that Villanueva demoted Limon four ranks to lieutenant when Limon refused to take the fall for Villanueva’s failures to investigate and prosecute the incident.