LOS ANGELES — A Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy punched a mother who was holding a 3-week-old infant during an arrest last year in a case that has been referred to prosecutors, the sheriff said.
The woman was punched twice in the face on July 14, 2022, as she and other women with children were being arrested on allegations of child endangerment after a traffic stop, Sheriff Robert Luna said.
“I found the punching of the woman in these circumstances completely unacceptable,” Luna said at a news conference.
The deputy was not publicly identified. The incident occurred before Luna was sheriff. He was elected in November, defeating then-Sheriff Alex Villanueva, and was sworn in in December.
The woman was punched after deputies pulled over a vehicle because it was driving without headlights just before midnight on July 13, 2022, in Palmdale, Luna said.
Deputies smelled alcohol and made the “discretionary decision” to arrest three female passengers who had three babies in their arms but not in car seats, as well as the driver, on suspicion of felony child endangerment, Luna said.
Body camera video released Wednesday shows one of the women telling deputies, “You’re not taking my baby,” and there is a struggle.
At least one deputy says the child is being hurt, the mother says to let go and that “you’re breaking his ... leg,” and a deputy appears to punch her twice in the face, the video shows.
Luna said the incident was brought to his attention over the weekend by one of his area chiefs. He said he took action but was prohibited by state law from disclosing disciplinary actions.
Luna said the deputy has been relieved of field duty.
He said he directed the department to refer the matter to the Los Angeles Country district attorney's office for criminal consideration. He said the FBI would also be looking into it.
Laura Eimiller, a spokesperson for the FBI's Los Angeles field office, said the FBI was in contact with the sheriff's department "and will review the facts to determine whether a violation of federal law occurred.”
The district attorney’s office said Wednesday night that a case had not yet been presented to it.
The video released Wednesday also shows a different woman having her baby taken from her as she is sitting on the ground, holding the child wrapped in a blanket.
For several minutes, the video shows the woman talking to the deputies standing around her about the traffic stop. A deputy tells her she was endangering her child, and a female deputy asks: “Are you going to give up the baby nicely, or am I going to have the grab him, and they’re going to grab your hands? I don’t want to do that, but those are your two options.”
Deputies take the baby away and put the woman in handcuffs as she is seated, the video shows.
The sheriff’s department said this month it was opening an investigation into a different incident in which a deputy threw a woman to the ground outside a grocery store in Lancaster, NBC Los Angeles has reported.
Deputies were responding to a call about people fighting with store loss-prevention officers, the station reported, and Luna said deputies sought to detain two people matching the description that was provided when it escalated.
That deputy is also no longer in the field, Luna said Wednesday.
Palmdale and Lancaster are cities in the Antelope Valley, in Los Angeles County north of the city of Los Angeles.
County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, whose district includes Palmdale and Lancaster, called the video released Wednesday “gut wrenching.”
She said there have been calls for more transparency in policing in the Antelope Valley.
"Discipling deputies, including firing them, is an immediate but short term fix," Barger said in a statement. "Investing in training and increased supervision yields long lasting change."
In 2015, after a federal investigation found patterns of excessive use of force, bias and unlawful searches and seizures, the Justice Department announced a settlement with the sheriff’s department over its stations in Lancaster and Palmdale to promote reforms.
The male driver of the vehicle in the July 2022 traffic stop in Palmdale was arrested on charges of driving with a suspended license and driving under the influence of alcohol, Luna said.
The actions of other deputies and supervisors who were there are also being reviewed, he said.
“I still believe this is an isolated incident that was committed by an individual that will be held accountable. Make no mistake about that,” Luna said Wednesday. He said the Palmdale incident and others would be used to improve training.