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A Westminster police officer is on paid administrative leave after punching someone in handcuffs twice in the face this past Wednesday — an incident that’s been captured on video from a bystander.
The officer, who the Westminster Police Dept. has not named, is now under an internal affairs investigation.
It’s another controversy for a department that once lost a federal discrimination lawsuit by Latino officers in 2014 — resulting in a $3 million judgement at the city’s expense — and continues to face wrongdoing and retaliation lawsuits by rank-and-file officers and one high-ranking department head.
One case is expected to go to trial in March next year, according to the plaintiffs’ attorney, Dennis Wagner. Sworn depositions of former and current department employees around those cases have been well underway.
Meanwhile, Westminster City Hall faces an ongoing crisis in general, navigating a leadership vacuum while officials teeter along a financial crisis over the next few years — stoking fears of steep budget cuts, the near-elimination of entire city divisions and services, and scores of staff layoffs.
The officer punching incident happened on Wednesday afternoon, as police were responding to an assault-and-battery call on Locust St., according to the department.
“The (department) is well aware of portions of the video circulating on social media” and
“considers this a serious event and will ensure that this investigation will be guided by the law and the truth,” officials wrote in a statement released Thursday afternoon, after Voice of OC inquired about the video. Click here to see it.
After putting the suspect in handcuffs and calling paramedics (police say the suspect may have been under the influence), officials said the suspect became combative.
That was when the officer punched the person in handcuffs twice in the face. Video of the incident showed the other officers then trying to restrain the officer who used violence.
“Two WPD Officers immediately intervened and deescalated the situation,” the department wrote in its statement.
The suspect was taken to a nearby hospital for evaluation, and police claim no injuries were reported and the suspect has since been booked into Orange County Jail.
“The Westminster Police Department Internal Affairs Division is in communication with the Orange County District Attorney’s Office which will evaluate the officer’s use of force and determine if criminal charges are warranted,” the department’s statement reads, adding that the suspect in handcuffs has since been referred to the District Attorney’s office for criminal charges.
The department is currently headed by temporary chief Roy Campos, who took over in March for former chief Mark Lauderback, who left Westminster for a police chief job this year in Cypress.
Lauderback’s exit came after little over a year in the permanent chief position, replacing former chief Ralph Ornelas who left the department in 2019 following an administrative investigation into him and four lawsuits that named him as the overseer of a department in turmoil.
It was a department that retaliated against officers who spoke out about wrongdoing and illegal activity, and passed qualified officers over for promotions, according to the lawsuits.
The city has denied all those claims.
Ornelas had taken over the department in what was supposed to be a period of reform and reflection, right as the police force was reeling from a $3 million federal lawsuit loss over department administrators’ discrimination against Latino officers.
Meanwhile, a leadership vacuum at City Hall in its entirety persists. About half of the city’s department heads and top staffers are filling in on a temporary basis.
Ornelas was the city’s fifth police chief in eight years.
His predecessor, Kevin Baker, rocked City Hall a 14-page complaint painting a picture of a city where council members used police enforcement on certain businesses for political leverage.
His complaint was kept secret after he retired in 2016.
Voice of OC successfully sued to make the document public.