The Los Angeles County Sheriff on Tuesday disputed allegations that he orchestrated a cover-up of an altercation in which a deputy knelt on the head of a handcuffed inmate and said a Los Angeles reporter Angeles Times which used leaked documents and videos for the first report on the case was part of its criminal investigation.
The newspaper’s editor condemned Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s action, calling it “an unlawful attempt to criminalize reporting.”
“Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s attack on the First Amendment rights of Alene Chekmedyian for newsworthy reporting on a video showing a deputy kneeling on the head of a handcuffed inmate is outrageous,” the editor said. Chief Kevin Merida in a statement.
“We will vigorously defend the rights of Chekmedyian and the Los Angeles Times in any proceedings or investigation by the authorities.”
The Times published a report last month outlining how sheriff’s department officials worked to cover up the March 2021 incident because they feared it would portray the department in a “negative light.” https://t.co/sPAeJw7CoP
The altercation with the inmate occurred at a county courthouse on March 10, 2021 – two days after jury selection began for the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who was convicted of murder for pressing his knee against George Floyd’s neck for up to 9 1/2 minutes.
The video shows Deputy Douglas Johnson ordering inmate Enzo Escalante to move against a wall in the courthouse. Escalante swings over Johnson and punches him repeatedly in the face. Three other deputies help Johnson knock Escalante to the ground and handcuff him.
No Charges Against Prison Deputy
The LA Times reported that Johnson had his knee on Escalante’s head for more than three minutes, even after the inmate was handcuffed, placed face down and appeared to be unresponsive. Escalante – who was awaiting trial on murder and other charges – was taken to hospital for treatment of minor injuries.
Johnson was removed from his post months later and is the subject of a criminal investigation, Villanueva said at Tuesday’s press conference. No charges have been brought against the MP.
Escalante pleaded not guilty to two counts of resisting an officer. He is represented by the Public Defender’s Office, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Escalante has filed a federal lawsuit against members of the sheriff’s department, including Villanueva, who alleges his civil rights were violated.
On Monday, Commander Allen Castellano filed a lawsuit, a precursor to a lawsuit, accusing Villanueva of first blocking and blocking the investigation into Johnson’s use of force, then of trying to cover up incident and retaliating against whistleblowers.
Villanueva, who oversees the nation’s largest sheriff’s department, is eligible for re-election, and Castellano’s statement indicates the sheriff was seeking to avoid bad publicity during his campaign.
The sheriff said Tuesday he didn’t see the video until eight months after the altercation, but Castellano wrote in his statement that Villanueva viewed it within days.
Sheriff says video was ‘stolen property’
Villanueva called Castellano a “disgruntled employee” who made “false statements”. The sheriff also said the video obtained by The Times was “stolen property that was unlawfully removed” and “all parties” to the deed are subject to his investigation into the leak.
“She received the information and then she used it for her own use,” he said, referring to Chekmedyian. “What she receives legally and uses for her own use and what she receives illegally and the LA Times uses, I’m pretty sure that’s a huge complex area of law and freedom of the press and everything that. However, when it’s stolen material, at some point, you have to be part of the story.”
During her press conference, Villanueva posted photos of Chekmedyian, Los Angeles County Inspector General Max Huntsman and former Sheriff Commander Eli Vera under the caption: What Did They Know and When Did They Know It know?
In the original Chekmedyian story, Vera said Villanueva viewed the video at an assistant’s office a few days after the altercation. Vera is running against Villanueva and was also the commander overseeing court services at the county courthouse where the altercation occurred. Huntsman is investigating allegations that Villanueva lied about the altercation and issued a subpoena ordering Villanueva to testify or turn over records.
Chekmedyian, who regularly covers the sheriff’s department, attended the press conference and Villanueva ignored his questions.
The sheriff has previously targeted other journalists for their work, including when his deputies arrested a KPCC public radio reporter in 2020 while she was filming an arrest during a protest.
David Loy, legal director of the California-based First Amendment Coalition, said Villanueva’s investigation into Chekmedyian was an attack on press freedom.
“The press has the absolute right to report and publish information of public interest, even if this tape is otherwise confidential and has been leaked to them,” Loy said. “It’s the basic law of the First Amendment.”