The FBI is investigating allegations that two Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies knocked an inmate unconscious, beat him for two minutes and then tried to cover up their conduct, authorities confirmed Monday.
The federal civil rights probe was prompted by the allegations of an American Civil Liberties Union representative who said she witnessed the assault while meeting with another inmate in the Twin Towers jail in January. Esther Lim, the ACLU's observer in the jails, filed a court declaration stating that she was in another room when she heard a thud sound. Through a window, she said, she saw two deputies punching, kicking and shooting an inmate with a stun gun.
The inmate never resisted, and his body was limp "like he was a mannequin" throughout the assault, Lim said, adding that she did not believe the deputies were aware she was there.
FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller confirmed that a probe had been opened into the incident. She declined to elaborate on the investigation other than to say that sheriff's officials have been notified and that it's specific to the alleged January beating. Sheriff's officials had also launched their own investigation into Lim's allegations.
During the incident, Lim said the deputies monotonously repeated "stop resisting" and "stop fighting," as though they "were reading from a script."
ACLU officials say they commonly receive 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 two deputies 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.
After Lim went public with her allegations, Sheriff's Department officials publicly asked why she hadn't immediately reported the beating to them. The ACLU, in turn, criticized the department for what they characterized as publicly questioning a potential witness' credibility.
Representatives from the civil liberties group also complained that James Parker, the inmate who was allegedly beaten, was charged with felony counts of battery and resisting an officer before the sheriff's probe into Lim's allegations was wrapped up.
Lim told The Times she was interviewed for about three hours by federal authorities a couple of months ago.
Her attorney, Michael Proctor, said Lim remains a monitor in the jails, but has received a "chilly reception" since the incident. He said she has cooperated fully with authorities.
The FBI investigation was launched after ACLU officials called for federal involvement, saying the Sheriff's Department has been "unwilling" to investigate its jail deputies aggressively.
"The response we always get from the Sheriff's Department is 'Oh, prisoners lie,' " said Peter J. Eliasberg, legal director with the ACLU of Southern California. "We have real doubts about the Sheriff's Department's ability to do an impartial investigation."
Spokesman Steve Whitmore said Sheriff Lee Baca is open to his department being scrutinized.
"The sheriff and by extension the Sheriff's Department has never had any problem with anybody looking at whatever they do," Whitmore said. "We certainly believe transparency is much more than a buzzword. It's an actuality in the Sheriff's Department."
An internal sheriff's log appears to confirm the Jan. 24 incident, but offers a different narrative than Lim's. 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 shot with a stun gun, according to the sheriff's log.
According to the department, 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. Generally the only witnesses, aside from other deputies, are inmates whose accounts are inherently considered less credible, experts say. Critics pointed to this incident as a rare instance in which a third party happened to observe.
Eimiller said the bureau's findings will be presented to the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.