Hours after a third lawsuit was filed today against the Los Angeles County sheriff regarding a suppressed 2021 video of a deputy kneeling on an inmate’s head, the embattled top cop again blamed the cover-up on the former subordinates who are now taking him to court.
Former LASD Chief Lajuana Haselrig filed a third suit against Sheriff Alex Villanueva regarding the incident and its aftermath on Wednesday, a week after the sheriff’s former top advisor, Robin Limon, filed a whistleblower claim alleging the sheriff attempted to cover up the video, in which a deputy is seen placing his knee on the head of a handcuffed inmate for three minutes. The March 2021 CCTV video shows Deputy Douglas Johnson, after an altercation with inmate Enzo Escalante, kneeling on his head; Escalante remains passive throughout the incident, which took place inside the San Fernando Courthouse lockup.
After Villanueva and others touted departmental achievements and discussed other policing matters at Wednesday morning’s sparsely-attended press conference, which had been announced mere hours earlier, the sheriff took just one question from the media. He was asked to respond to Haselrig’s morning filing, in which the former police chief says that Villanueva had, in fact, viewed video with her of the March 2021 incident that month and not nine months later in November 2021, as he has said. The suit also alleges that the sheriff had forced her into retirement under the threat of demotion as he attempted to cover the incident up.
Villanueva responded on Wednesday by shifting any blame to his then-subordinates, saying that the three lawsuits regarding the courthouse incident come from former LASD staff who failed to follow protocol and initiate both administrative and criminal investigation when they were aware of the head-kneeling incident.
“They failed to do that,” he said. “And the fact is, by November 18, when I had knowledge of this incident, the administrative investigation had already been initiated and the criminal investigation had already been initiated. So there is no whistle to be blown, because the two things that have to happen, happened.”
Villanueva then suggested that the lawsuits must be considered in the context of his ongoing reelection campaign and that the release of the video “was done for political purposes” only.
“We’re going to defend all three of these cases very vigorously in court and we have all the facts and evidence on our side,” he concluded.
The 2021 courthouse incident took place just as the trial of now-former-Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin garnered major media attention. Chauvin was found guilty of the murder of George Floyd, who he brutally killed by placing a knee on his neck for nearly 10 minutes in May 2020. According to Limon, this was a motivating factor for Villanueva to cover the incident up.
Despite three of his LASD colleagues saying otherwise, Villanueva has maintained that he did not see the video until November.
Haselrig claims in her suit that the sheriff was “desperate” and “panicked” when he saw the video of Johnson kneeling on Escalante’s head; Villanueva later turned on his colleagues, the suit claims, when he indicated that it was them who orchestrated the cover-up of the courthouse incident.
When Haselrig left at the end of March 2021, she had been with the department for 34 years.
“Due to the Sheriff’s illegal conduct, the complainant’s long career in law enforcement is over and illegally destroyed by the County of Los Angeles and its employees,” her lawsuit states.
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