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Assault by deputies at jail alleged

An inmate says he was handcuffed, taken to an isolated area and pepper-sprayed after swearing at officers.

January 01, 2008|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has suspended three deputies and opened a criminal investigation into allegations that they assaulted a jail inmate and pepper-sprayed his genital area.

The investigation started after Alejandro Franco, 23, alleged that jailers, upset because he swore at one of them, took him to an isolated place and assaulted him in November.

In an interview with The Times this weekend, Franco said two deputies pinned him to the ground at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown Los Angeles and a third pepper-sprayed his anus and scrotum.

Oleoresin capsicum spray, commonly known as "pepper spray," is used by many law enforcement agencies -- including the Sheriff's Department -- to control dangerous and violent suspects. It causes inflammation, pain and discomfort so severe that most subjects lose the ability to resist, a report by the U.S. Department of Justice said.

Franco said he was handcuffed at the time and did not resist.

"If they had just punched me and yanked my shirt, this wouldn't have been an issue," Franco said by telephone from the jail. "They took it an extra step. It was humiliating, degrading, embarrassing. . . . They should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."

A sheriff's official said the department's Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau has taken Franco's allegations "very seriously" and is reviewing them. The three jailers have been placed on paid leave during the investigation, but department officials would not identify them or make them available to comment.

"There is a criminal investigation. It's moving along," said Michael Gennaco, chief attorney for the Office of Independent Review, which monitors Sheriff's Department internal affairs investigations under a contract with the county. "If the allegations are true, the consequences are serious. There is no legitimate reason for doing what is alleged here."

Franco said he swore at a deputy who had refused to give him a clean shirt. At the time, Franco was in jail for allegedly violating terms of his probation for a domestic violence conviction.

About 45 minutes after the argument, three deputies removed him from his cell, handcuffed him and took him to a recreation area away from other inmates, Franco said.

One deputy jabbed him in the face, the inmate alleged. Another yanked his T-shirt and asked, "How's this shirt?" Franco said.

Then the deputies ordered him to lie face-down on the pavement. Two held him there, pressing their knees into his back and neck. Then, he said, "my boxer shorts were pulled down and I was pepper-sprayed . . . . "

Franco said he heard a hissing sound and then began to feel severe discomfort.

"My testicles and area down there was burning really bad," he said.

A deputy then warned him not to act up again, Franco said.

"He said, 'You so much as stick your nose out the tray slot [on the cell door] I'll beat you up so bad you'll have to go to [the hospital],' " Franco said.

The deputy said he needed to teach him a lesson for swearing at him, Franco said.

"He said I made him look [bad] in front of everybody, so now everybody is going to think they can get away with that," Franco said.

Franco admitted that he had used foul language but said he did not assault or resist the deputies.

"It's not worth it for me to do that," he said. "I'm out in a month and a half. I have no intention of prolonging my stay here."

Franco said he was examined by a doctor in the days after the assault and diagnosed with a bruised back, an injury he believes was caused by the deputies' restraining him.

Steve Whitmore, a sheriff's spokesman, declined Monday to discuss details of the case.

"Of course we take it seriously," he said. "At the conclusion of the investigation, the appropriate action, if any, will be taken and anything that can be released to the public will be released to the public."

Franco said sheriff's investigators have interviewed him twice about the allegations. They seized his clothing, which he said was stained by the spray, and recently swabbed his mouth to get a DNA sample, he said.

Franco said deputies often use physical force to maintain control within the jail.

"It's standard routine. This is their house. You either get with the program or the program will get with you," he said. "If they punched me a couple of times and said, 'Don't do it again,' I could have lived with that."

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