Sheriff Villanueva launches criminal investigation into leak of use-of-force video

Los Angeles County sheriff's officials attempted to hide an incident in which a deputy kneeled on the head of an inmate for three minutes while the man was handcuffed.
A man who punched a deputy is subdued at San Fernando Courthouse in March 2021, seen in a still from video provided to The Times.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said he is launching a criminal investigation to find out who leaked security video of an incident in which a deputy knelt on the head of a handcuffed inmate for more than three minutes.

The Times published video last month of the March 2021 incident and detailed efforts by department officials to keep it under wraps.

Department officials had worried at the time about the negative publicity that could come from a deputy kneeling on a handcuffed man’s head, “given its nature and its similarities to widely publicized George Floyd use of force,” according to an internal report by a commander critical of the cover-up.

The commander's July 2021 report indicated that sheriff's officials decided not to pursue criminal charges against the inmate, who had punched the deputy in the face, to avoid drawing attention to the incident. Sheriff’s officials waited until January — almost a year after the incident — to take the case against the inmate to prosecutors.

In an interview with Fox 11 News, Villanueva said the disclosure of the video to The Times amounted to a theft of investigative material. He did not respond to questions from The Times.

"That is still an active case — it's not supposed to see light of day until it's concluded," he told the station. "And the fact that The Times had not only the investigation, they had the videotape — that was stolen from the department, and by department members."

First Amendment experts were troubled by the move to target people for releasing police misconduct records, saying the threat of prosecution sends a chilling message to whistleblowers.

"If the sheriff really did try to prosecute somebody for theft, under these circumstances, to me [it] would be: 'Dude, you're in L.A. County. Don't you have more serious crimes to worry about than somebody leaking a video? And aren't you really doing this because it's embarrassing you?'" said Karl Olson, a lawyer who specializes in 1st Amendment and public records cases.

Olson said the individual who leaked the video would have a strong claim under laws designed to protect whistleblowers.

"The laws exist to encourage people to come forth and report illegal or fraudulent activity on the part of government," Olson said.

David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said the records would have likely become public anyway as evidence in the prosecution of the inmate, as well as in the potential case against the deputy.

"So why the withholding, and why the saber-rattling on pursuing criminal charges against the person who disclosed them, if they were going to be public anyway?" Snyder said.

He added: "That has a real chilling effect on potential sources within the department, who for public interest reasons, may want to see records relating to misconduct disclosed, and it constricts the flow of information that the public is entitled to see and that is necessary in order to hold public agencies to account."

The incident happened on the morning of March 10, 2021, two days after jury selection had begun 1,500 miles away in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who would be convicted of murdering Floyd by kneeling on his neck.

At the San Fernando Courthouse, deputies were conducting routine searches of inmates before their court appearances when deputies told two inmates to be quiet.

As the pair continued talking and laughing, Deputy Douglas Johnson ordered one of them, Enzo Escalante, to stop and face the wall. Escalante, 24, was awaiting trial on multiple charges, including murder.

Security video obtained by The Times shows Johnson walking closely behind Escalante through a hallway before ushering him toward a wall.

Escalante turned around and punched Johnson in the face multiple times. Johnson and other deputies then took Escalante to the ground, positioning him face down.

After he was handcuffed, Johnson kept his knee on Escalante’s head for three minutes.

The sheriff denied an allegation made by Eli Vera, a former top-ranking department official who is seeking to unseat him, that he had been involved in the cover-up and had viewed the video at an aide’s desk within days of the incident.

Internal records show that at least one top executive above the level of division chief was aware of the incident early on. That could include Villanueva, Undersheriff Tim Murakami and three assistant sheriffs. Villanueva has refused to answer questions about who was made aware of the incident and what direction they gave.

After the Times report, Villanueva said he became aware of the incident in November and launched a criminal investigation into the deputy. He also announced that he had shaken up his “senior command,” but refused to provide specifics about whose jobs had changed and why.

He has announced a new administrative investigation into the cover-up and named an acting assistant sheriff, Holly Francisco, to oversee countywide operations, including the Court Services Division, where the incident occurred. Francisco is taking over for Robin Limon, who held the position at the time of the kneeling incident.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.