Reeling from an international uproar over a televised beating by two of his deputies, Riverside County Sheriff Larry Smith bitterly denounced their actions Wednesday and announced that the one suspect taken into custody had been released after officials concluded that he was not the driver of a pickup truck loaded with suspected illegal immigrants.
By Wednesday evening, all the other people detained for entering the country illegally were released, and officials acknowledged that the driver of the truck appears to have eluded authorities. Although they allegedly entered the country illegally, the passengers from the vehicle will be allowed to remain in the United States for six months so they can assist authorities investigating the incident.
In Riverside, the swirl of the day's events was capped by Smith's stern press conference, which scores of reporters attended and which took place inside the besieged sheriff's headquarters. Roads in the area were blocked off for crowd control, and sheriff's officials said they had been deluged with calls from around the world.
Outside, demonstrators chanted in protest, and civil rights lawyers representing the two people struck by Deputies Kurt Franklin and Tracy Watson said they were preparing to file a lawsuit today against the department.
The lawsuit, they said, will be filed on behalf of the two victims of the beating, Enrique Funes Flores--also known as Adrian Flores Martinez--and his companion, Alicia Sotero Vasquez. Sotero said Wednesday that she had given a false name--Leticia Gonzalez Gonzalez--in fear when authorities interviewed her after the beating.
In an interview Wednesday with The Times, Sotero said she still was in pain from the blows inflicted on her and mystified by the ferocity of the deputies who delivered them. "I don't know why they did what they did," she said.
The deputies were suspended with pay the day of the beating. Both have hired attorneys and have stayed out of public view.
At his press conference, Smith did not comment about the prospect of lawsuits, but he joined those expressing dismay about the incident, which unfolded at the end of a wild, 80-mile, high-speed chase.
"I'm deeply concerned about the actions captured on the videotape," said Smith, who spent the day meeting with federal and local officials--including a personal session with Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block--as well as representatives of the Latino community and the Mexican Consulate, all in an effort to quell the furor over Monday's incident. "From what is in the video, it appears to be a clear case of excessive use of force."
In addition to vocal protests in Riverside and Los Angeles, police use-of-force experts at other departments expressed dismay at the deputies' handling of the incident. In some ways, they said, Monday's beating was an even worse exercise of police judgment than the 1991 beating of Rodney G. King. In that incident, King charged at the officers and resisted arrest after leading them on a chase.
But the videotape of Monday's confrontation shows no such conduct on the part of the two people struck with the deputies' batons. Although the beating was not as prolonged and fierce as the one inflicted on King, the apparent lack of provocation for the blows astounded some police officers at the LAPD and other departments.
Smith acknowledged that the glare of publicity was uncomfortable for his department. He complained that the coverage had distorted the overall image of his force, which he described as well-trained and disciplined, citing statistics showing that his 1,200 sworn personnel last year generated just 31 excessive force complaints, only two of which were sustained. The sheriff pledged a full internal investigation into Monday's incident. In one particularly pointed moment, he also promised that his department will not shirk its responsibility to investigate itself.
"There will be," he insisted, "no cover-up."
But even as Smith tried to separate his agency from the work of two of its deputies, the day's developments brought another embarrassing revelation for the organization.
The one person that the Sheriff's Department had arrested in connection with the incident, Smith said Wednesday, was let go after investigators determined that he was not the driver of the pickup.
"The person, Mr. Flores Martinez, who we had originally charged and had suspected to be the driver, has been cleared," Smith said. "He is not the driver. He met with members of the Mexican consul, and has been released to the INS. At this point, we do not know who the driver was."
Police officers and sheriff's deputies are trained to concentrate on arresting the driver at the end of a pursuit because that is the only person in a vehicle guilty of the crime of evasion.