A Los Angeles County criminal grand jury has opened an investigation into the sheriff’s department’s handling of an altercation in which a deputy knelt on the head of a handcuffed inmate for three minutes, sparking comparisons to the fatal tactics used by Minneapolis police against George Floyd.

The altercation led to allegations of an attempted cover-up within the sheriff’s department, allegations that Sheriff Alex Villanueva has repeatedly and vehemently denied. In a statement late Monday, Villanueva acknowledged the grand jury investigation, and said his office is fully cooperating.

“On Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022, the sheriff’s department received notification of a criminal grand jury subpoena for records regarding a use of force incident in the San Fernando Court lockup from March of 2021,” Villanueva said in the statement. “Any allegation of misconduct is of deep concern to the department, and this one is no exception. Hence, we are conducting a thorough internal investigation, and we are fully cooperating with this subpoena.

“To date, our investigation indicates that the allegation of misconduct was orchestrated by involved department executives to falsely portray themselves as whistleblowers in order to avoid discipline, up to and including termination. The district attorney has been given this and all other relevant information.”

The investigation focuses on the department’s handling of a March 10, 2021, altercation that was caught on surveillance video between a handcuffed inmate and deputies at the San Fernando Courthouse. A 24-year-old inmate named Enzo Escalante allegedly punched sheriff’s Deputy Douglas Johnson in the face. Johnson and other deputies wrestled Escalante to the ground, with Johnson putting his knee on the inmate’s head.

Security video of the altercation, first obtained by the Los Angeles Times, shows Johnson keeping his knee on Escalante’s head for three minutes after he was handcuffed and did not appear to be resisting.

After the Times published the story and video, Villanueva held a news conference and denied any effort to cover up the incident. He acknowledged that there were internal failures in the department, saying a criminal investigation should have begun immediately after the altercation, but only an administrative probe was launched. He insisted he didn’t see the video until November, and immediately launched the criminal investigation.

Villanueva has stuck with that timeline, but some department executives have challenged his assertions.

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