Surveillance videos recently unsealed by a federal district court in California show sheriff’s deputies using force against inmates inside Los Angeles County jails.
The videos were made public after attorneys from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press sought to unseal them on behalf of the Los Angeles Times. The footage had recently been filed under seal as part of a class action lawsuit two former inmates filed in 2012 alleging a “pattern of brutality” in the Los Angeles County jails.
In one of the surveillance videos, deputies can be seen repeatedly punching a handcuffed inmate in the head. Another video shows deputies slamming an inmate’s head into a wall. As the Los Angeles Times reported, the surveillance footage “offers a rare view of the culture of violence that has persisted behind bars despite a decades-long federal lawsuit and years of jail oversight.”
The Times intervened in the class action lawsuit — Rosas v. Luna — after a development in the case this past May. Although the former inmates settled their lawsuit against the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department in 2015, they recently claimed that the Department had failed to adequately address violence in the jails, as it was required to do under the terms of the settlement. To substantiate those allegations, the plaintiffs relied on “Use of Force Reports and Videos” that document alleged excessive force — all of which were filed with the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California entirely under seal.
The Times, which has extensively covered allegations of abuses and mismanagement in the Los Angeles County jail system, filed a motion to intervene and unseal the videos in August. On behalf of the newspaper, Reporters Committee attorneys argued that the sealing of the use-of-force materials couldn’t be justified in light of the powerful public interest in access to the records.
On Nov. 8, the district court granted the Times’s motion to unseal the surveillance footage. Shortly after the ruling, the videos were made public.
Reporter Keri Blakinger, who co-reported the Times’s coverage about the release of the surveillance videos, said it is important for the public to see these kinds of interactions between jailers and inmates.
“In the free world, outside of jail, we see what interactions look like between deputies and civilians because people have cell phones and people might potentially witness an interaction,” she told the Reporters Committee in an interview. “But when there is violence that’s happening at the hands of government agents behind closed doors, it’s hard for people to really understand what that looks like, how serious it is, and how concerned they should be.”
Blakinger said the surveillance footage released this month was revealing. She noted that some of the videos show that the use of violence against inmates appeared to be unprovoked, while others show that deputies may have misrepresented or even lied about their altercations with inmates.
Blakinger said it was especially gratifying to know that the newspaper she works for played a role in helping make these videos public.
“This is amazing. This was the first time I’ve ever been involved in a story where we got to convince a court to let the public see the brutality of what goes on behind bars,” she said. “I think it’s really meaningful for people who live in Los Angeles to be able to see what really goes on inside these facilities.”
Read the Times’s full coverage here.
The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.