It’s disturbing video the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department does not want the public to see – inmates howling in pain, some dragged away bloody and unconscious during a mass cell extraction at Men’s Central Jail in August of 2008.
Eyewitness News fought to get dozens of videos unsealed by the courts, in part because the incident has already cost L.A. County taxpayers millions of dollars in damages and attorney fees – and the costs are still mounting because the case is on appeal.
A federal jury awarded five of the injured inmates nearly $1 million in damages and the judge awarded roughly $5.5 million in fees to the inmates’ attorneys. L.A. County hired a private law firm to defend the case and has not responded to multiple requests by ABC7 for a tally of those costs.
Attorneys for the inmates offered to settle the lawsuit before trial for a total of $1.3 million, but that offer was rejected.
The violent incident is also a stark reminder of the LASD’s darker days, when brutality against inmates was rampant. The Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence released a report in 2012 that found “a persistent pattern of unreasonable force in the Los Angeles County jails that dates back many years.”
The use of force against inmates can be reasonable and justified, but in this case jurors found that dozens of deputies engaged in “malicious and sadistic” conduct for the purpose of causing harm.
“In a circumstance where a cell extraction becomes necessary, there are right ways to do it and wrong ways to do it,” says Peter Eliasberg, chief counsel at the ACLU of Southern California.
“These inmates were just brutally, brutally beaten. They were brought to submission, Tasers were used all over their bodies, they were kicked and punched and beaten in a way that there was no justification for doing,” Eliasberg tells Eyewitness News.
Nineteen of the 20 inmates injured in the extractions were hospitalized – some with broken bones and other severe injuries. One inmate, Carlos Flores, lapsed into a coma. His injuries included blunt trauma to the head, a fractured eye socket and a possible “strangulation injury.”
“This case is the most telling manifestation of the sadistic nature and the ability to act with impunity of deputies in inflicting corporal punishment,” says Ron Kaye, one of the attorneys for the inmates.
“The Sheriff’s Department never believed they could remotely be held accountable, because these guys were criminals – serious criminals – and we are law enforcement, we can do whatever we want,” says Kaye.
To this day, the LASD and their attorneys say the force depicted in these videos was reasonable and justified. In a statement to Eyewitness News, the LASD says the “inmates involved in this incident were some of the most dangerous and violent criminals housed in the high security section of our jails.”
“There are inherent limits to video accurately portraying this kind of situation,” the statement reads. “In this case, the physical constraints of the jail cells added to the difficulty of capturing on video the details of the individual uses of force necessary to overcome the inmates’ resistance.”
It was Aug. 25, 2008 when inmates on the 3100 and 3300 rows of Men’s Central Jail rose up in protest over what they believed to be excessive force used earlier that day on one inmate by deputies.
Some of the inmates lit fires, flooded their cells, broke their sinks or toilets and threw pieces of porcelain at deputies — they refused to leave their cells. Sixty-five inmates were involved in some way with the protest. Forty-four of them eventually left their cells voluntarily and unhurt, but 20 inmates did not.
Teams of deputies led by their sergeants, lieutenants and a captain launched what’s known as a mass cell extraction to forcibly remove the inmates one at a time from their single-man cells.
The violent and chaotic extractions dragged on for six hours. Deputies in body armor and carrying shields can be seen beating and stomping some inmates, firing rubber bullets, launching Sting-Ball grenades and deploying Tasers in what’s known as the drive-stun mode for long periods of time. The deputies’ own reports indicate they used more than 100 “hard impact strikes” on the inmates.
“People were tased in the area of their anus to inflict maximum pain,” says co-counsel for the inmates James Muller.
One inmate testified that “he was looking forward to losing consciousness and was drifting off, and suddenly he was tased back to consciousness,” says Muller.
Attorneys for the LASD told jurors this “was a major riot by highly dangerous inmates,” and that the “use of force never looks good.”
“They deserve a pat on the back. They deserve a thank you,” defense attorney David Lawrence said of the deputies in closing arguments to the jury.
Videos show inmate Carlos Flores being dragged bloody and unconscious from his cell by a team of deputies that includes former Sheriff Leroy Baca’s nephew Deputy Justin Bravo. Several of the deputies, including Bravo, are not wearing helmets in the videos, proof Muller says the deputies were not that concerned about their safety.
“If you were truly threatened and concerned about your safety, you would keep your helmet on,” says Muller.
The LASD was required by its own policy to record video footage of the extractions, and they did. But the judge sanctioned the defense at trial because some footage was either “missing or destroyed” by the department.
“This entire scandal is riddled with efforts by the Sheriff’s Department to hide the evidence,” Kaye says, noting that much of the footage not “missing or destroyed” lacked a clear view of the action. The hand-held cameras were often pointed at the ceiling, other cells or at the back of deputy’s helmets.
The captain of Men’s Central jail at the time, Dan Cruz, can be seen throughout the videos, at one point watching as an unconscious inmate is dragged by him.
“Six hours, so this was not just a split-second decision,” says Muller. “It was a calculated torture of these inmates, approved by the highest-ranking person at the jail at the time.
Captain Cruz was singled out by the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence for allegedly encouraging a lieutenant to “not spend too much time” investigating deputy misconduct and the excessive use of force.
The LASD’s Internal Affairs unit investigated the 2008 incident and, according to the inmates’ attorneys, found that all of the force was within policy – although at least three key players in the extractions testified in depositions they were never interviewed.
“You were never formally interviewed by Internal Affairs?” attorney James Muller asks Lt. Chris Blasnek in the videotaped deposition obtained by Eyewitness News.
“No,” Blasnek replies.
“Were you interviewed by Internal Affairs concerning this incident?” Muller asks of Sgt. Kelley Washington.
“No,” she replies.
“Were you interviewed by Internal Affairs regarding this incident?” Muller asks Sgt. Matthew Ohnemus.
“No, sir,” he replies.
“Zero discipline,” says Kaye, noting that testimony at trial showed the at least 100 admitted uses of force did not show up on a single deputy’s Personnel Performance Index – which is supposed to include every use of force – whether it’s ultimately found to be justified or not.
Kaye and Muller argued at trial there was a “code of silence” among deputies, an allegation backed up by findings of the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence in its 2012 report.
“This is the United States of America and we expect that no matter what you’ve done in society, you pay your punishment for your crime, and there is some level of human dignity,” Kaye tells Eyewitness News.
The ACLU’s Peter Eliasberg says pressure from his organization, the CCJV and the media contributed to significant and positive changes at the jails in recent years. There are now three independent monitors of a federal consent decree which requires substantial changes in policies and practices at Los Angeles County jails.
“I’m very glad the public will be able to see this,” says Eliasberg. “Yes, it happened a number of years ago, but the public should be aware of what happened in the jails during that very, very dark period – if for no other reason than to be aware of what we have to be vigilant to protect against in the future.”
Several of the inmate-plaintiffs are now convicted murderers and serving their time in state prison. Two of the inmates are serving additional prison time for throwing porcelain at deputies during the cell extractions.
All but two of the 28 deputy sheriffs named as defendants in this lawsuit are still working for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Former Captain Dan Cruz testified in that video deposition that he’d been suspended by the department in 2011. Cruz later retired and collects a pension of approximately $16,000 per month.
The LASD initially agreed to do an on-camera interview for this story, but later made it a condition that Eyewitness News ask no questions about the videos or the incident itself. Eyewitness News declined.