LOS ANGELES — The FBI has opened two criminal investigations into violent incidents involving Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies in Palmdale and Lancaster, both of which sparked criticism after video footage came to light in recent weeks.
According to an email obtained by the Los Angeles Times, federal authorities have already visited the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department headquarters to take documents needed for their probes. Department officials on Friday confirmed the visit and said they plan to cooperate.
One of the investigations will focus on a case involving a Palmdale deputy who punched a woman in the face last year while she held her baby in her arms. The other will center on a case involving a Lancaster deputy who threw a woman to the ground by her neck last month in a WinCo parking lot after she started recording an arrest with her cellphone.
On top of the federal investigations, the email also says the California Department of Justice has agreed to review the case of 18-year-old Andres Guardado, who was shot in the back three years ago by a sheriff’s deputy in Gardena.
The state DOJ did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment. An FBI spokesperson said federal authorities were in contact with the Sheriff’s Department regarding the Palmdale case, but would not confirm a criminal investigation into either incident.
The internal county email obtained by The Times said that “federal criminal investigations have been opened concerning the recent incidents” in Palmdale and Lancaster.
“The FBI has already been to headquarters to obtain department documents on both incidents,” the email said, adding that the DOJ “will not be publicly commenting on the investigations.”
The email went on to say that officials believed word of the investigations “will likely leak soon” since the FBI visited the department’s headquarters, but that Sheriff Robert Luna would not yet be commenting publicly.
“Additionally, the California Attorney General’s office accepted the Andres Guardado case,” the email continued. “The CA DOJ will not be confirming that they are reviewing the case and has advised the department to keep this matter confidential and not to comment or confirm that CA DOJ accepted the case.”
The Palmdale incident under federal scrutiny took place in July 2022, but did not become public until this week when Luna called a news conference to release body camera footage and announce that the deputy involved had been relieved of duty.
The agonizing 8-minute video stemmed from a routine traffic stop after Palmdale deputies spotted a vehicle driving at night without any headlights. When they pulled over the driver, the deputies allegedly noticed the smell of alcohol coming from inside and spotted four women, three of whom were holding babies in their arms instead of using car seats.
The deputies began to arrest the women on suspicion of felony child endangerment, and used force on two of the women when they resisted giving up their babies.
The bulk of the video shows a tense conversation between a group of deputies and one woman clutching her baby while seated cross-legged on the ground. The deputies can be heard saying that the woman was riding in a car driven by someone without a valid license, and that her baby was not in a car seat. After several minutes of back-and-forth, the deputies pry the woman’s hands apart and she begins screaming as the child is removed from her arms.
Nearby, another woman holding a baby begins screaming and cursing at officers. When deputies announce they plan to arrest her too, she grows irate.
“Y’all gonna have to shoot me dead to take my baby from my arms,” she says, before a struggle ensues.
As the woman is being held by her wrists and arms by at least two deputies, a third male deputy can be seen throwing two punches at the woman’s head while she is still holding her baby. It is unclear if the punches connected, but the woman howls in pain.
Tiffiny Blacknell, director of communications for the district attorney’s office, confirmed that prosecutors declined to file charges against the women seen in the video after the Sheriff’s department presented a case. Blacknell was unsure what charges the Sheriff’s Department asked prosecutors to consider.
At Wednesday’s news conference, Luna said he only learned of the incident a few days earlier, and that he “took swift action” by relieving the deputy of duty and sending the matter to the FBI and local prosecutors.
“I found the punching of the woman and the circumstances completely unacceptable,” he said.
In a Facebook post a day later, the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs publicly identified the deputy who threw the punch as Timothy Gardner. The union posted a link to a GoFundMe account soliciting donations for Gardner and said the deputy was recently “advised that it was the Department’s intent to discharge him from his position of Deputy Sheriff.” The account has already raised $27,000.
“The disdain placed on Deputy Timothy Gardner’s name is despicable and unjust in every form,” the page read.
Attorney Bill Hadden, who is representing Gardner, told The Times that the 8-minute video released this week shows only a fraction of the longer incident, during which deputies repeatedly tried to get the women to hand over their children. Eventually, he said, they became concerned one of the women would injure her baby.
“The deputies were all concerned that harm was going to come because the woman said she was not going to give up the baby unless somebody shot her,” Hadden said. “So Deputy Gardner struck her, and she dropped the baby.”
Afterward, Hadden said, several levels of internal review cleared the deputy of wrongdoing.
Under state law, police officers must generally face discipline within one year of their department learning about alleged misconduct. Friday marks the one-year anniversary of the incident.
The other incident under FBI scrutiny took place on June 24, when deputies responded to 911 calls for a reported robbery in progress at a WinCo Foods grocery store on Avenue K in Lancaster. After arriving on scene, they encountered a man and a woman who allegedly matched the description of the suspects given to 911.
As the deputies handcuffed the man in the parking lot, the woman began filming with her phone. Within seconds, one of the deputies rushed toward her and reached for her arm, seemingly in an attempt to take the phone.
“You can’t touch me,” she screamed. He threw her on the ground, and footage showed the deputy arguing with the woman and threatening to punch her in the face at one point. He then pepper-sprayed her in the face and handcuffed her.
The man was ultimately cited on suspicion of resisting an officer, attempted petty theft, and interfering with a business, while the woman was hospitalized because of the pepper spray and abrasions to her arm. She was released and cited on suspicion of assaulting an officer, as well as battery after assaulting loss prevention personnel.
At a July 6 news conference, Luna called the incident “disturbing” but declined to name the deputies involved. Both have been removed from field duty, he said, adding that the department’s internal investigation to determine whether it was a reasonable use of force is still underway.
“At the end of the day, we’re short-handed at a lot of our patrol stations, if not all of them,” he said. “Out in the Antelope Valley, it’s one of the busiest stations we have in the entire county.”
The case now under review by the California Department of Justice dates back to June 2020, when then-deputy Miguel Vega tried to arrest Guardado for possession of a firearm.
During a brief foot chase, the teen ran from Vega and his partner, Chris Hernandez, but complied with Vega’s orders to surrender and drop the weapon he was holding, according to a district attorney’s office memo.
Guardado got on the ground, but Vega claimed the teen reached for the gun. Vega then shot Guardado five times in the back, killing him.
The case sparked widespread protests and was one of several fatal sheriff’s department shootings to prompt outrage in L.A. County in recent years. Ultimately, the teen’s family filed suit and last year the county settled for $8 million. This year the district attorney’s office decided earlier that there was “insufficient evidence” to prosecute Vega, due in large part to a lack of available surveillance video and the fact that Vega was the sole witness to the shooting.
The email reviewed by The Times did not detail what the California Department of Justice plans to do with the Guardado case, and a spokesperson for the state attorney general’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The California Constitution grants the office the power to review cases where the “law is not being adequately enforced” by a local or county agency, and Attorney General Rob Bonta has used that power to prosecute police officers once before.
In 2021, Bonta brought manslaughter charges against former LAPD officer Salvador Sanchez, who shot and killed a developmentally disabled man in a Costco in Riverside. Local prosecutors had previously declined to pursue charges in the case.