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Criminal Justice

Sheriff Villanueva Denies Attempting Coverup Of Deputy Kneeling On Jailed Man's Head For 3 Minutes

LA Sheriff Alex Villanueva, wearing his uniform, speaking at a podium at a news conference.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva at Tuesday's press conference.
(Screenshot from LASD Facebook video)
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Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva Tuesday denied that he attempted to cover up an incident involving a deputy who knelt on the head of a jailed man who was handcuffed for three minutes.

He said the handling of the case has led him to launch an investigation into a "potential coverup" after he learned that "many people, including senior executives" in the department, failed to ensure there was a criminal investigation of the deputy, rather than just an administrative one.

As a result, the sheriff said "we've had a change in our senior command." He then introduced Holly Francisco as acting assistant sheriff for countywide operations, a position that has been held by Assistant Sheriff Robin Limón.

The incident occurred in March 2021 inside the San Fernando courthouse. A surveillance video obtained by the Los Angeles Times shows an altercation in which Enzo Escalante, who was awaiting trial on multiple charges, including murder, started punching a deputy the newspaper identified as Douglas Johnson.

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Johnson and other deputies are seen in the video restraining Escalante face down on the floor, and Johnson places his knee on Escalante's head. The Times said after Escalante was handcuffed and no longer resisting, Johnson kept his knee on Escalante's head for three more minutes.

Villanueva said Escalante suffered minor injuries.

Department officials buried the video and did not order an internal criminal investigation because they were worried about how the use of force would look, “given its nature and its similarities to widely publicized George Floyd use of force,” according to a portion of an internal report read to us by a senior official.

Villanueva said he didn’t see the video until November, and that as soon as he did he ordered the deputy relieved from duty and called for a criminal probe.

But Sheriff’s Commander Eli Vera, who is running against Villanueva in the June election, said the sheriff saw the video shortly after the incident.

“I learned from multiple sources that he watched the video back in March,” said Vera, who oversees court services where the incident occurred.

It's "critical" that allegations of a coverup "be investigated by an outside agency," said L.A. County Inspector General Max Huntsman.

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