A civilian jail monitor said she witnessed two Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies treat an inmate like "a punching bag," unjustifiably beating him as he lay unconscious for at least two minutes, according to a court declaration filed Monday by the ACLU.
The representative for the civil liberties organization was at Twin Towers jail for an unrelated meeting with another inmate when, according to her declaration, she heard thuds from outside the room she was in. Through a window, she said, she saw two deputies punching, kicking and Tasering an inmate.
Esther Lim, the ACLU observer, said the inmate never resisted, and his body was limp "like he was a mannequin" throughout the assault. In an interview with The Times, Lim said the deputies did not realize she was watching until after the beating stopped. A declaration from another inmate supports her account.
An internal sheriff's log also appears to confirm the Jan. 24 incident, but offers a different narrative. The log states that the inmate punched a deputy and charged at him. When another deputy tried to help, the inmate punched him as well and remained combative until he was Tasered, according to the sheriff's log.
Lim called the deputies' account a fabrication, saying inmate James Parker was so still while being beaten that she worried he was dead. During the incident, she said the deputies monotonously repeated "stop resisting" and "stop fighting" as though they "were reading from a script."
Lim said the ACLU commonly receives complaints from inmates who say deputies beat them while repeating "stop resisting" commands, even when the inmates aren't resisting. Lim said she suspects the deputies involved in this incident recited the commands as a ruse to later justify their actions with the help of a jailhouse recording or other deputies who may have heard their commands.
A sheriff's spokesman said the matter is being investigated, though "initial findings" indicate the inmate was combative, and one of the deputies injured his hand and had swelling on his face.
Allegations of deputy brutality in county jails are common but hard to substantiate. Aside from other deputies, usually the only witnesses are inmates, whose accounts are inherently considered less credible, experts say. This incident offers an especially rare instance in which a third party was there to observe.
One of the deputies involved in the incident was identified in court records as Ryan Hirsch. The other was identified by the ACLU by his last name, Ochoa. Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore declined to confirm their names. Both, he said, declined requests from The Times for an interview. The deputies remain on active duty, Whitmore said.
Parker, 35, was charged Monday with felony counts of battery and resisting an officer in connection with the incident. According to Lim's account, Parker was lying on his stomach, looking "unconscious" or "even dead." Hirsch and Ochoa, she said, simultaneously punched him and kneed him. Parker, she said, never put up his hands to protect his head, which Lim took as a sign that he had lost consciousness.
The deputies Tasered Parker's leg up to four times, she said, and his torso up to three times. A minute into the beating, Ochoa motioned to the other deputy, bringing his index finger to his lips, Lim recalled. Hirsch yelled "stop resisting" and "stop fighting" just once more after Ochoa motioned, she said.
Soon after the incident, Ochoa looked at Lim through the window and signaled for her to move away from the window, she said.
During another visit the next day, she said, she recognized Ochoa and at one point noticed him "staring at me in an aggressive manner."
Parker received stitches to his face, pain in his ribs and a swollen cheek and eye, according to the ACLU.
"This makes me feel even more strongly that these kinds of incidents go on a lot," said Peter J. Eliasberg, managing attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. "And every time we bring them to the Sheriff's Department, they consistently say, 'They're all false, they're all false, prisoners lie.' "
Whitmore said investigators will interview all the witnesses.
"It's rare that you have a civilian eyewitness, and what we don't understand is she never mentioned this to us," Whitmore said. "Why didn't she come forward? Why didn't she talk to us?"
Eliasberg said the ACLU did not notify the Sheriff's Department immediately because in the past officials there have been quick to deny any complaints.
A court declaration from the inmate who was meeting with Lim at the time of the incident also disputed the deputies' telling. Lim said inmate Christopher Brown had seen the altercation develop before she did. Brown said Parker was not resisting.
"I saw him stumbling forward, towards me, falling to the ground," Brown said in a court declaration. "He looked like he was knocked out." After the incident, Brown said, another inmate had to mop up what appeared to be blood.
Brown said he was interviewed by deputies about the incident afterward. He said Ochoa was present at first. "As I was telling the sergeant that I saw Deputy Ochoa punching Parker, Deputy Ochoa stared at me in an aggressive manner, so I asked him 'What?' He aggressively said 'What' back at me.' "
Michael Gennaco, who heads the Office of Independent Review, the department's official watchdog, said involved deputies should not be present during interviews. Whitmore said the deputy was not present and that Brown's allegation was a "fabrication."
After Ochoa was escorted away, Brown said, he saw the other involved deputy, Hirsch, who warned him not to get involved.
"My advice," he said the deputy told him, "is to stay out of it. It doesn't have anything to do with you."