The young woman who answered her apartment door in an oversized AC/DC T-shirt had scratch marks on her neck.
But she insisted she was fine when a Williamson County, Texas sheriff’s deputy responded to the call of a concerned neighbor about possible domestic violence.
Her boyfriend was gone, she assured the deputy. She made clear she wanted nothing to do with police.
“I do not want to talk to you, especially Williamson County,” the 20-year-old said in body camera footage. “Y’all have a really bad reputation. I do not want to deal with you.”
Moments later, without provocation, deputy Lorenzo Hernandez grabbed the young woman. As she screamed, he threatened to use his Taser. He and two other deputies slammed her to the ground, handcuffing her while they searched her home.
The violent escalation of what should have been a routine law enforcement interaction is the latest in a string of aggressive encounters by Williamson County Sheriff’s deputies that have come to light amid ongoing investigation by the American-Statesman, part of the USA TODAY Network.
Other incidents recently exposed by the newspaper include the March 2019 Tasing death of Black father of two Javier Ambler during a traffic stop, and several, dangerous high-speed pursuits launched over minor traffic infractions.
The troubling pattern coincides with the agency’s 11-month partnership with A&E reality show ‘Live PD,’ during which televisions crews filmed Williamson County deputies as they patrolled the streets, made arrests and interacted with the public. The show was canceled two days after the Statesman and KVUE-TV first reported details of Ambler’s death.
Live PD wasn’t filming the incident involving the domestic abuse victim, although Hernandez was one of the show’s stars. But it was captured from multiple angles on body camera footage recently obtained by the Statesman.
It also is one of five use-of-force cases currently under investigation by the Texas Rangers and local prosecutors.
The Sept. 21, 2019, incident is particularly troubling because it involved not a dangerous suspect, but an alleged victim accused of no crime, according to law enforcement experts who viewed the footage at the request of the Statesman.
Domestic violence advocates say they were horrified that the deputies also scolded the woman for what happened. That behavior, they said, only makes it harder to persuade victims to trust police enough to report abuse.
“Understand the circumstances y’all put yourselves in, and you make us have to deal with those issues,” Hernandez told the woman after deputies unlatched her handcuffs.
A former department sergeant told the Statesman that he flagged the case to supervisors but was initially treated adversarially.
In a statement this week, the department’s chief deputy said that Hernandez’s handling of the incident “was not in keeping with the high standards of the sheriff’s office.” Sheriff RobertChody, who has praised Hernandez publicly, suspended him for a day after an internal affairs investigation of the incident.
Two months after the incident, he promoted Hernandez.
Hernandez did not respond to an email seeking comment.
The woman at the center of the case did not want to speak publicly, and the Statesman is not naming her because her family asked on her behalf that she not be identified.
As deputies converged on the suburban apartment complex at 7:23 p.m. that Saturday evening, deputy Amanda Pereira was the first to contact the woman.
A neighbor led her to an apartment with a dark green door and a mat that read “Hope, Love, Joy”.
“She begged us not to call,” the neighbor whispered to the deputy.
Pereira, who graduated from the department’s training academy three months earlier, knocked on the woman’s door. She assured her that she only wanted to know that she wasn’t hurt.
Periera asked her to explain what happened, questioned her about her fresh neck injuries and scribbled her name and birthdate in a notepad.
“I don’t know where he is,” she told Pereira. “He left. We got into an argument. That’s it. Nothing physical.”
The woman then went back inside her apartment.
“She doesn’t want to be cooperative,” Pereira reported to Hernandez, a department training officer, as he arrived on the scene and rushed past her toward the apartment door.
“So, we need to see who else is inside your apartment,” Pereira told the woman as she answered.
“No, y’all really don’t,” the woman replied, holding up her hand.
Hernandez grabbed the woman, who started screaming.
“What the f---? What are y'all doing?” the woman cried out.
“Let go of the door or I’m going to Tase you!” Hernandez yelled.
Deputy David Dickerson arrived and dashed up the stairs. His body camera captured Pereira with her arm around the woman’s neck as he began reaching to handcuff the 20-year-old.
Following a 30-second scuffle, the three deputies handcuffed the woman, who fell to the ground.
“Oh my gosh, y’all are psycho!” the woman yelled.
“Quit running your mouth and calm down,” Hernandez yelled. “Shut your mouth and quit talking. Regardless of whether you want to cooperate, we are going to do what we need to do.”
The woman told deputies multiple times they were hurting her. As the deputies sat her up, Hernandez entered the apartment with Dickerson, shining their flashlights and shouting, “Williamson County Sheriff’s Office!”
During a five-minute fruitless search, Pereira remained outside with the woman and her sister, who had been inside the apartment and also told deputies the man was gone.
Deputies led the woman back into her home and unclasped the handcuffs.
Hernandez admonished her.
“When we don’t get your cooperation, that is what happens,” Hernandez said, pointing to the handcuffs. “All this screaming, and uh, all this s--- does not make us stop. OK?”
The woman responded: “What are my legal rights? Can you tell me my legal rights?”
“We have to do a welfare check to make sure all persons are secure in this house,” Hernandez continued. He wagged a finger and scolded, “Next time we show up, you don’t have the right to do that, to keep us out of your house.”
A case review
When the case jacket landed on his desk a couple of days later, Sgt. Troy Brogden, whose job was to assign new investigations to a brigade of detectives, was immediately troubled.
“I am reading (Pereira’s) report, and I got to the part where it mentioned her head hit the ground with a thud,” Brogden, now retired, told the Statesman in a recent interview. “I was like, ‘Why was nothing done?’”
Watching body camera footage increased his concerns.
“I have had that situation I don't know how many times,” Brogden said. “You explain, ‘I have to come in and I have to see who is here’ and there was none of that. It was, ‘Get out of my way. I’m the boss.’ The whole thing was uncalled for.”
Texas law allows law enforcement to enter a home without a warrant if they have a reasonable fear someone inside is in danger.
Brogden said he urged supervisors on multiple occasions to address the matter. He felt his efforts to bring accountability to the deputies were received adversarially by the department and Chody.
“He told me he didn’t think I was ‘Team Chody,’” Brogden said. “I told them, ‘It’s not ‘Team Chody.’ It’s ‘Team Williamson County.’ I was embarrassed to say I worked there.”
He retired a few months later.
The department declined to provide documentation of its internal affairs investigation. In a statement, Chief Deputy Tim Ryle said “his failure to properly deescalate the incident is unacceptable.” Hernandez was removed from being a field training officer and was ordered to receive additional training in addition to the single day suspension.
He was promoted two months later to detective and is currently investigating property crimes.
Hernandez was among a new crop of deputies Chody brought into the department after he took over the agency north of Austin in January 2017.
Hired that September, Hernandez was the first of at least three hires from the Bastrop County Sheriff’s Office. The other two were Deputies J.J. Johnson and Zach Camden, who were involved in Ambler’s death.
Four months before joining Williamson County, Hernandez had an embarrassing and potentially dangerous blunder that resulted in disciplinary action.
He notified supervisors that as he was getting ready for work, he had “looked everywhere” for a pouch with his gun. According to his personnel records, he called the Bastrop Police Department, which reported that a Sig Sauer .40 caliber handgun had been found at a local Wingstop restaurant.
Hernandez later explained that he had gone there to eat with his family. He told supervisors that while grabbing leftovers, he inadvertently forgot the gun. He was suspended without pay for 12 hours.
In Williamson County, Hernandez was quickly featured on “Live PD,” smiling in several promotional photographs. Hernandez appeared in an episode that captured the violent arrest on June 2019 of Ramsey Mitchell, who was left with long-lasting injuries after five deputies unleashed a barrage of punches, knee jabs and Taser shocks. In the video, Hernandez arrives after other deputies, including Johnson and Camden, have pinned Mitchell to the ground. Hernandez runs from his vehicle to the melee and delivers several punches to Mitchell. Texas Rangers are also investigating that incident.
Hernandez has stepped up in Chody’s charity fundraising efforts. Last March, Chody posted a picture of himself with Hernandez and another deputy who had their heads shaved for the St. Baldricks Foundation, which raises money to help children with cancer.
A month later, Chody Tweeted that Hernandez had agreed to being body slammed through a table by pro-wrestler Dustin Rhodes to raise money for the same charity.
Wearing a red T-shirt with the words “Tased and Confused,” Hernandez thanked viewers who had contributed and pointed to the wooden folding table that he was about to be thrown into as blue and red police lights flashed around him.
Rhodes then counted to three, lifted Hernandez and slammed him into a table so hard it snapped in two.
“OUCH!!!” Chody wrote on Facebook. “Thanks for your support.”
‘You have to have some humanity’
Timothy T. Williams, a retired senior detective supervisor for the Los Angeles Police Department who developed domestic violence policies and procedures for the agency, reviewed the bodycam footage and said deputies made multiple mistakes.
They initially sent only one officer to talk to the alleged victim. The deputy fired off questions instead of building a rapport.
He was troubled that no one explained the importance of searching her home prior to Hernandez using force.
Williams said the deputies could have also complicated an investigation had they found and arrested the assailant: Investigators may have had difficulty determining which wounds were from that attacker or Hernandez.
Nikhita Ved, senior director of legal services for the SAFE Alliance, a nonprofit that helps domestic violence victims, said many survivors have been in relationships in which power and control were exerted over them. They would benefit from law enforcement having calm conversation -- not carrying on familiar parts of their abusive relationship, she said.
“A conversation has a lot of power,” she said. “Treating them like they are a survivor and not someone who can assist in an investigation can go a long way.”
Experts generally agree that deputies had an obligation to enter the home to ensure the woman’s safety and reduce the department’s liability if she was subsequently harmed.
Former Harris County Assistant District Attorney L.E. Wilson, a state expert on search and seizure laws, said the incident is the type that officers often confront with no clear answer about how to proceed.
“It boils down to, ‘What does the officer think is going on?’” he said. “If they genuinely had a concern about the occupants, I think they have the right to go in and walk through before they leave. ’”
Williams said that the incident highlights how officers’ demeanors can help set the tone of an encounter and determine whether a sensitive scene can be calmed or spiral out of control.
“What you saw is wrong,” he said. “You have to have some humanity.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: After call for help, Texas deputies attack domestic violence victim