An LA deputy punched a woman in the face as she held her 3-week-old baby, video shows
Updated July 13, 2023 at 8:53 PM ET
The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has released disturbing body-worn camera footage of a year-old incident in which a deputy punched a Black woman in the face twice as authorities wrested her 3-week-old baby out of her arms despite her pleas.
It happened during a late-night traffic stop on July 13, 2022, when Palmdale deputies stopped a car that was driving without headlights and smelled alcohol coming from it. They found four women holding three infants in their laps, and decided to arrest them and the driver for child endangerment, the sheriff's office said.
The deputies used force on two of the women to arrest them and pry their children from their arms, as seen in the troubling 8 1/2-minute video. None of the people involved have been publicly identified.
Sheriff Robert Luna, who took office in December, said at a Wednesday press conference that the incident had been referred for an internal affairs investigation shortly after it happened, which was months before he took office last winter — and that he only found out about it this weekend when a concerned area chief brought it to his attention.
"I found the punching of the woman in these circumstances completely unacceptable," Luna said, adding that he had released the video in order to be transparent with the public.
The deputy has since been disciplined and is not currently in the field, Luna said, stressing that state law precludes him from disclosing specifics. The actions of the other deputies and supervisors who were on the scene will be reviewed as well, he added.
He said he has also directed his staff to refer the incident to the Los Angeles County District Attorney for criminal consideration, and that the Los Angeles FBI office will look into it too. The FBI confirmed to NPR in an email that it will "review the facts to determine whether a violation of federal law occurred."
Luna said he has also discussed the incident with community and religious leaders and local elected officials, many of whom have released statements condemning the deputy's actions.
It's the second use-of-force controversy to come out of the LA County sheriff's office in recent weeks.
The department is investigating a late June incident in which two deputies threw a woman to the ground in a grocery store parking lot (they were from the Lancaster station, about 10 miles away).
Luna said the newly publicized incident "and others that have come to our attention recently" will be used to improve the department's training, policies and accountability mechanisms. He said this individual will be held accountable, but emphasized that the vast majority of deputies and staff are doing good work.
"From the very first time that I came into this job, I told people I expect our community to support good policing, but then it's incumbent on us to call out bad policing when we see it," Luna said. "And in a sense ... we are calling out, by presenting this today ... that we believe the actions of one individual are problematic."
What the video shows
The majority of the body-worn camera footage in the July 2022 incident focuses on the arrest of a different woman, who is sitting on the ground holding her baby and pleading with officers not to take her away.
She repeatedly asks the officer to look at her and listen to her, and offers to call someone to take the child home.
"I am a mother. I take care of this baby by myself, and I've done a damn good job 'cause look how big she is, look how healthy she is," she says, to which the officer says he's not accusing her of doing a bad job. "But that's what you are ... you don't have to take all of our kids."
At one point, a female deputy kneels down beside the woman and tells her she doesn't want to have to "snatch her and have my partners grab your arms."
"We're gonna take the baby one way or another, and I don't want to be rude about it," she says, adding that "it's nothing personal."
Several law enforcement officers surround the woman as she asks them to be reasonable. They talk for several minutes, as she points out that she was just trying to get home and hadn't previously done anything wrong.
The deputy wearing the camera tells her that the baby had been in danger, and that he is trying to do what's best for the children.
"Taking my child from me is not what's best," she says.
About six minutes into the video, at least two deputies lean over the woman and try to grab the child out of her arms as she screams and yells "please." They carry the child away, handcuff the woman and walk her over to a police car.
Then the deputy wearing the camera walks over to another car, where a different woman is standing with a baby in her arms as two deputies stand over her. She is visibly upset, telling them they'll have to shoot her dead before they can take the baby.
Her screams get louder as the deputies move in, and at one point she tells them the baby is just three weeks old and that they're hurting him. Then more deputies move in, and one can be seen bringing his fist behind his head and throwing two punches.
The angle of the video obscures the woman's face, but she screams in anguish and yells "Don't punch me, bro" several times. Within seconds she is being held down against the police car and handcuffed, the baby nowhere to be seen.
What elected officials are saying
Los Angeles officials are slamming the actions of the deputies, especially the one who threw the punches, while praising Luna for bringing the incident to light.
Mayor Karen Bass called the video enraging and disturbing, and said the acts shown in it must be condemned openly.
"The idea that you would assault a mother with a child in her arms and then subject that child to the child welfare system just because the child didn't have a car seat is an abuse of power," she said in a statement shared with NPR. "When a child goes into the child welfare system, it can take months for that child to be returned. That process can result in lifelong trauma for both the mother and the child."
She said the sheriff's release of the video represents "a step towards progress — but also a reminder that we have a long way to go."
Janice Hahn, the chair of the LA County Board of Supervisors, commended Luna for sharing the video but said "it should have been released immediately by the prior Sheriff."
She tweeted that the deputy does not belong in the sheriff's department, and that she trusts that Luna will act quickly to discharge him.
Transparency and accountability start at the top, LA County Supervisor Kathryn Barger said in a statement, calling for measures that will make things better in the long-term.
"Disciplining deputies, including firing them, is an immediate but short-term fix," she added. "Investing in training and increased supervision yields long lasting change."
How police have responded
It's not clear what happened after the incident, though Luna said it was assigned to the department's internal affairs bureau for an investigation "shortly after it occurred."
"I cannot speak to what my predecessor did or did not do," he said at the press conference.
Former Sheriff Alex Villanueva told NPR in an email that Luna's comments "negate the fact he had seven months to complete the investigation that began on my watch, and used selective footage to highlight the actions of one deputy who used force."
He said the public is being misled to believe that the deputy assaulted the woman without justification and accused her of "using her infant as a human shield to thwart her arrest."
"If the deputy believed the child was being injured by the mother, that places his actions in an entirely different light, and negates any prosecution for criminal conduct," he said, accusing Luna of trying to appeal to a far-left political base.
Richard Pippin, the president of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs (ALADS), said in a statement reported by KTLA that the "any dispute over the control of infants on the roadway at 12:30 a.m. during an arrest of the driver of the car these children were riding in without proper restraints is a bad situation."
The infants' physical safety was the deputies' highest priority, he added.
"There will be a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking, and some will no doubt say that things could have been done differently," he wrote. "A full investigation and due process for all involved — including those who work through the night to keep our communities and our children safe — will yield that information."
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