LANCASTER – Allegations of brutality against a 20-year-old woman who claims she was roughed up and choked by deputies during a traffic stop last week are being investigated by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Lancaster Station.
“They were basically manhandling her,” said J. Wilson, who says she witnessed some of the incident from across the street. “I heard her saying she couldn’t breathe and they didn’t acknowledge her.”
“What she is alleging here is pretty serious,” said Lancaster Station spokesman Michael Rust. “Any complaint we take very seriously. We absolutely do not want somebody out there doing something wrong.”
The complaint was reported around 10 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 11, by N. Wise (who did not want to use her first name.) Wise also produced medical reports from the Antelope Valley Hospital created the morning after the incident, which stated she had contusions, shoulder strain, and an inflammation of the cartilage that attaches the ribs to the breast bone. Wise claims she suffered those injuries at the hands of deputies.
She says the incident began around 8 p.m., Wednesday, Jan. 11. Wise says she was riding a bicycle on West Avenue I, near 15th Street West – on her way home from a friend’s house – when a car pulled up behind her and immediately shut its lights off.
“I see a cop popping out the car before the car even fully stops; he asked me where I am headed,” said Wise.
She alleges the deputy, Jeremy Esswein, demanded she get off the bicycle and forced her hands behind her back.
“He forced me on the car… he was like ‘do you have anything on you?’” Wise said. “I was bent over on his car, he had his arm pressed in to me, and I was like ‘I can’t breathe!’”
Wise says she was having difficulty breathing because her asthma was acting up due to the stress of the situation.
Wise said the deputy asked her if she had any warrants on her or if she was on probation, and she told him she had never been in trouble and this was her first encounter with law enforcement.
She said she tried to raise her head, and that’s when the other deputy, Curtis Foster, put her in a headlock.
“Foster was the one who started choking me, and that’s when I started moving up and down,” said Wise. “That’s when it felt like they both tackled me on to the back of the car, and that’s when they handcuffed me.”
Wise said, at this point, she was crying hysterically.
“I’m literally sitting in a puddle of my tears and my snot,” Wise said. “I was like, ‘I can’t breathe like this!’ he said ‘you’re talking so you’re fine.’”
She said both deputies dragged her to the curb and forcefully restrained her until back-up arrived.
“I had Esswein, he was on my left side, he’s pressing down on me, Foster [was] on my right side pressing down on me… and choking me with my sweater… I’m screaming ‘he’s choking me, he’s choking me!’”
Wise maintains that she was not fighting back, only screaming in pain. She said this continued until more deputies arrived on the scene.
“It was like five cop cars that came up and probably like six or seven cops,” Wise said.
She said she informed one of the female deputies that she was crying because she had been pulled over without cause and she had been choked. Wise said that’s when the officer informed her that she had been pulled over because she had no light on her bicycle.
She said she was searched by two officers.
“I had one person on the left side of me searching, one person on the right searching,” Wise said. “They just kept saying ‘make sure you search her thoroughly…’”
Wise said she had to remove her shoes during the search, and then was placed in a patrol car, without shoes, while deputies searched her background.
Wise was eventually ticketed for not having a light on her bicycle and not having valid identification. Wise, who does not own a driver’s license, said she produced an Access Card, with her name and photo, but the card was not deemed valid identification.
Wise estimates she was detained for about an hour, and says after calming down she headed to the Lancaster Station to file a complaint.
“I feel as if I was targeted because I was Black,” Wise said.
Tuesday, Lancaster Sheriff’s spokesman Michael Rust emphatically denied that deputies participate in racial profiling.
“In our business, it’s never a racially motivated stop,” Rust said. “We don’t racially profile, we criminal profile.”
Rust said he couldn’t speak specifically about the contents of Wise’s complaint because the matter was being investigated, but he could speak to the procedures that deputies follow during a traffic stop.
“The allegations that she is making is totally not procedure-wise,” Rust said.
Rust said Wise’s circumstances gave deputies probable cause for the traffic stop, and she was legally detained for her bicycle violation.
“Fifteenth Street West and [Avenue] I, there’s narcotics activity, there’s a lot of crime going on at nighttime, there’s a lot of creatures out there,” Rust said. “So you’ve got a person riding a bicycle in that kind of area. Are narcotics commonly transported on bicycles? Sure! Now I see a person in this area, at nighttime, with no headlight on the bike. Are they up to no good? Could be. And my job is to fight crime, so there is a high probability that there’s some crime going on with this person riding the bicycle.”
Rust said Wise’s failure to produce valid identification may have aroused further suspicion.
“So once you got the person stopped, you want to know who this person is, and if she pulls out an Access Card, with her picture on it, well anybody can get that, it’s not a valid form of ID in our eyes…” said Rust. “So now you really don’t know who you’re dealing with…”
He said it is standard procedure for deputies to inquire if a suspect “has anything on them.”
“We ask do you have anything on you, because we’re going to do a cursory pat down for our own safety to make sure you don’t have a weapon on you,” he said. “If she’s got bulky clothes we may squeeze pockets… If we’re gonna be squeezing things, we don’t want to squeeze a hypodermic needle and get stuck with it… We could say, ‘are you on probation or parole or do you have any warrants,’ we’re asking all kinds of questions because we’re investigating things now.”
Rust said it’s not unusual for a person to be handcuffed during a traffic stop.
“You’re not under arrest, you’re just being detained,” Rust said. “We react to the person, so if the person is starting to get amped up and they are raising their voice and becoming agitated, we have to control this. We don’t want to escalate it, we want to control it.”
Rust said a person could get injured as deputies try to control a situation.
“In the course of trying to handcuff her to control her, I can imagine she’s probably squirming and fighting, not really fighting, but being resistant to the deputies,” Rust said. “So could a person get injured? They could very well. But was there something wrong? Not really, it was all driven by the person.”
Rust said he has never witnessed an incident of deputy abuse.
“I can’t say we don’t, but I have never witnessed it,” he said.
“The people that are getting a ticket, first of all, they don’t want to get a ticket,” Rust said. “They always want to blame us and paint us in a bad light, we understand that, it’s part of doing business.”
Rust said Wise’s allegations of deputy brutality will be investigated at the station level first. Depending on what is found, the complaint could be routed to the Sheriff’s Department’s Internal Affairs Bureau.
The two deputies named in Wise’s complaint, Jeremy Esswein and Curtis Foster, are also named in a civil lawsuit against the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. In the civil lawsuit, Lancaster resident Marco Chiclana claims he was excessively beaten by Esswein, Foster and four other deputies on April 2, 2011 in front of Antelope Valley Hospital. Read more on that lawsuit here.