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A Black California Man Says a White Ex-Employee Assaulted Him. He Was the One Detained.

Erick Wallace’s federal civil rights lawsuit joins a long line of litigation and misconduct allegations against the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva speaks beside an image of a seized semi-automatic weapon as he briefs the media after the arrest of a 13-year-old boy who allegedly threatened to carry out a shooting at Animo Mae Jemison Charter Middle School, in Los Angeles on Nov. 22, 2019. Photo by Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images

On Jan. 26, 2018, Erick Wallace was with his girlfriend near their Altadena, California, home when they ran into a former employee, Gary Van Ostrand. The two got into an argument and Van Ostrand allegedly threw coffee in Wallace’s face and punched him several times. His girlfriend, Vickee Escalera, called 911 to report that she and Wallace were the victims of an assault. Escalera also identified Van Ostrand as white and Wallace as Black. 

But according to a newly filed federal civil rights lawsuit, when Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputies arrived on the scene, they detained Wallace and violently threw him into a squad car, leaving him with permanent injuries. “In desperate need of protection, Ms. Escalera called 911 for assistance,” the suit alleges. “Despite the fact that Plaintiff was bleeding from his face as a result of being the victim of a vicious assault, the deputies immediately assumed that he, as an African American male was the perpetrator and Mr. Van Ostrand as a Caucasian male was the victim of a crime.” 

Wallace’s complaint against Los Angeles County and Sheriff Alex Villanueva—as well as 10 unnamed officers he says were involved—joins a long string of lawsuits and misconduct complaints against the department, despite the swearing in of Villanueva, who promised to reform the long-troubled department, in late 2018. 

Villaneuva rehired a deputy terminated in 2016 after he faced allegations of domestic abuse and stalking.  In June, deputies shot and killed 24-year-old Ryan Twyman, firing 34 bullets into his car. Twyman, a Black man, had recently become a father and was unarmed at the time of the shooting. Black Lives Matter Los Angeles stated that Twyman had been killed “as if he were an enemy combatant in a warzone” and “as if he were less than human.” In September, former sheriff’s deputies sued the department, alleging that a “gang” of deputies called the Banditos engage in violent misconduct, including savagely beating fleeing suspects. The plaintiffs alleged that the gang was protected by Villaneuva, whom one Banditos member was said to have called “dad.” The sheriff’s department also has been accused of racial profiling; last year, the Los Angeles County inspector general’s office criticized a highway enforcement team run by the department that stopped thousands of Latinx drivers.

The sheriff’s department told The Appeal that it does not comment on active litigation. But Wallace’s attorney,  A.D. Williams, said his client uses a cane and was forced to go to the hospital after the officers shoved him into their squad car. Not long before the incident, Wallace had been in a car accident. Williams says that when the two deputies shoved Wallace into a car, they re-injured his back.

During the incident, Escalera “was just constantly yelling at them that they had the wrong guy,” Williams said. “And my client just kept screaming that they were hurting his back.”

Williams said Escalera called the police and identified the culprit as a white man. But Wallace’s suit says two sheriff’s department officers appeared on-scene and assumed Wallace perpetrated the attack. When the officers arrived, Wallace says he was sitting down as his face bled from the wounds he sustained. Wallace says the attack had “concluded” and it should have been clear to the officers that no one’s safety was in jeopardy at the moment. But he says that didn’t stop the officers from grabbing him, wrenching his hands into cuffs, and chucking him into a police cruiser. Wallace says he was released on the scene without being charged, but only after the officers realized they had detained the wrong guy. According to Los Angeles County Court records, police charged Van Ostrand with one count of misdemeanor battery, but prosecutors later dropped that case. The Appeal was unable to reach Van Ostrand for comment.

“The last time I saw my client, he was still using a cane to walk,” Williams said. He added with a sigh: “It’s just another routine L.A. case.”