(NewsNation) — A Los Angeles deputy’s use of force was caught on video, and the video’s release caused a fallout within the police department.
Now, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva is publicly targeting the Los Angeles Times reporter who broke the story.
The controversy started with a video of an inmate punching a Los Angeles County deputy in the face at the county courthouse 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.
The video shows Deputy Douglas Johnson directing inmate Enzo Escalante to move up against a wall in the courthouse. Escalante swings at Johnson and punches him repeatedly in the face. Three other deputies help Johnson wrestle Escalante to the ground and handcuff him.
The Los Angeles Times reported that Johnson had his knee on Escalante’s head for more than three minutes, even after the inmate had been handcuffed and placed face-down. Escalante did not appear to be resisting.
Commander Allen Castellano filed a legal claim, a precursor to a lawsuit, that accused the sheriff of first blocking and stalling the investigation into Johnson’s use of force, and then working to cover up the incident and retaliating against whistleblowers.
Villanueva disputed the cover-up allegations.
“‘Fearing bad publicity, LASD covered a case of deputy who knelt on inmates head.” Wow, this is a false headline right there,” Villanueva stated. “No, there was an individual within a division who did engage in something of concern, but they were not definitely acting on behalf of the department.'”
Villanueva says the video wasn’t shown to him until Nov. 18, months after the arrest. But Castellano alleges Villanueva, the undersheriff and assistant chief, reviewed the video days after the incident, obstructed justice and then retaliated against him for blowing the whistle.
“It’s a cover-up, and his response is to cover it up more,” Castellano’s attorney Vincent Miller said.
Villanueva calls Castellano a “disgruntled employee” and strenuously denies the claims.
“So when it comes to cover-ups or whistle-blowers, I don’t exactly see what was covered up or what whistle was blown, because that’s a mystery,” Villanueva said.
During a news conference this week, the saga took a curious turn as Villanueva announced Alene Tchekmedyian, the Los Angles Times reporter who broke the story, and others were conspiring against him.
The sheriff even displayed a placard featuring the reporter’s photo.
The sheriff then said the department was investigating her in connection with a leak of information and listed potential felony charges for “all parties to the act.”
“The matter is under investigation,” Villanueva said. “This is stolen property that was removed illegally.”
The paper’s general counsel sent a letter to the sheriff protesting the investigation and the top editor condemned Villanueva’s remarks, calling it an illegal “attempt to criminalize news reporting.”
After condemnation by first amendment organizations and local politicians, Villanueva released a statement saying an outside law enforcement entity will be in charge of the investigation.
He also issued a clarification on Twitter, saying, “I must clarify at no time today did I state an LA Times reporter was a suspect in a criminal investigation. We have no interest in pursuing, nor are we pursuing, criminal charges against any reporters. We will conduct a thorough investigation regarding the unlawful disclosure of evidence and documentation in an active criminal case.“
According to Castellano’s claim, this is not the first time he blew the whistle on Villanueva.
He says he reported him in 2015, before Villanueva became sheriff, for not getting an inmate medical help after being shocked with a Taser.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.