Wave Staff and Wire Reports
LOS ANGELES — A woman who was seen on body-camera video being punched by a sheriff’s deputy while cradling her newborn baby during a traffic stop last year has filed a civil-rights lawsuit against the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
The lawsuit filed on behalf of Yeayo Russell alleges excessive force and wrongful arrest, while also accusing the sheriff’s department of inadequately training the deputies involved.
“The county has had a practice and a custom of using excessive force,” attorney Jamon Hicks said at a morning news conference July 25 announcing the lawsuit. He added that Russell spent several days in jail after the incident.
“She had no idea where her child was,” he said. “Hours and hours she had no idea if her child was OK.”
Video from the July 2022 confrontation came to light earlier this month when Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna told reporters at a news conference that he had asked the FBI to assist in the investigation. He said the deputy involved in the confrontation had been relieved of duty.
In the body-cam video, a male deputy at the edge of the frame is shown throwing two overhand punches at the woman as she is seen pleading for the deputy not to take her baby away.
“I found the punching of the woman and the circumstances completely unacceptable,” Luna said.
Luna said he took the “swift action” of relieving the deputy of duty after finding out about the incident.
Luna said the traffic stop occurred just before midnight on July 13, 2022, when deputies from the Palmdale Sheriff’s Station noticed a vehicle driving at night without the headlights on. When they pulled over the driver, the deputies noticed the smell of alcohol coming from inside and saw four women, three of whom were holding babies in their arms instead of using car seats.
The deputies arrested the man driving the vehicle on suspicion of felony child endangerment, as well as driving under the influence and driving with a suspended license, according to Luna.
The women were arrested on the same charges but during the course of arresting them deputies used force with two of them.
On the video, 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.
They repeatedly asked the woman who was eventually struck in the face to give up the child so she could be placed under arrest, telling her that her infant will be pulled away otherwise.
“Forcefully taking your child from you is not what’s best,” one deputy said.
“Taking my child from me is not what’s best,” the woman, not Russell, replied.
After several minutes of back-and-forth, the deputies pulled the woman’s hands apart and she began screaming as the child was taken away.
Another woman, Russell, who was close by and holding her own baby, began screaming and cursing at officers. When deputies said they planned to arrest her as well, she became incensed.
“Y’all gonna have to shoot me dead to take my baby from my arms,” she said before a struggle with deputies ensued.
During the confrontation, a male deputy is seen throwing two punches at the woman’s head while she is still holding her baby.
Hicks said that Russell’s family was “on the way to pick up the child, so the sheriff’s department could have easily allowed the child to go with Yeayo’s family, and this would have alleviated the need for force.”
The Association for Los Angeles County Deputies, the union that represents deputies, released a statement saying the video does not tell the entire story about the traffic stop.
“The video makes one thing obvious — police work is demanding and unpredictable,” the statement said. “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.
“Apparently, our deputies and the on-scene patrol supervisor had determined it wasn’t safe for the children to leave with the parents who were going to be taken into custody,” ALADS President Richard Pippin wrote.
“The physical safety of the infants was clearly our deputies’ highest priority as they were seen pleading with the women for a lengthy period. There will be a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking, and some will no doubt say that things could have been done differently.
“We will let the public decide that for themselves.”
County Supervisor Holly Mitchell, who represents the Second District, said, “The body cam footage Sheriff Luna released of a male deputy using excessive force during an interaction with a Black woman and her infant is shameful. This footage is further indication of the need for a culture shift that ends the long history of brutality directed towards Black people and communities of color by law enforcement.
“These acts of violence cause immeasurable harm and I expect zero tolerance for this behavior. I want to thank Sheriff Luna for working towards increased transparency and accountability in the department,” Mitchell said.
County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who represents Palmdale, called the video “gut-wrenching. My heart aches for the children that we see in this video and for their mothers.”
Barger added, “To the law enforcement community who will also see this video … and whose work will be judged harshly in the court of public opinion, I want you to know that I value your work.”
Fourth District Supervisor Janice Hahn called for Luna to fire the deputy who threw the punches.
“It is appalling and there is no justification for this violence,” Hahn said in a statement. “This deputy does not belong in our Sheriff’s Department.”
“I’m disturbed and horrified by the footage that LASD released showing mothers in distress who simply needed help keeping their children safe.” said Third District Supervisor Lindsay Horvath. “These women and their children needed a safe ride home; instead, those sworn to protect them inflicted physical harm (and) lasting trauma.”