Two years after abuse allegations at the Auburn Main Jail led to the firings of three officials and a revamp of how deputies use force against inmates, a federal judge in Sacramento gave his final approval Thursday to a $1.4 million class action settlement in the case.
And, with the legal battles in the case finalized, comes the release of videos and photographs of the incidents that Placer County officials have fought to keep from public view.
One of the videos, of a cell extraction on May 14, 2017, involving mentally ill inmate Beau Bangert, shows four Placer sheriff’s officials rushing into Bangert’s tiny suicide-watch cell, smashing him into a wall with a plastic body shield, then alternately punching and Tasing him before removing him from the cell.
“Get on the ground,” one yells at Bangert as he is grabbed and punched. “We’re going to put you to sleep,” another says moments before six other jailers rush toward the cell to aid in restraining Bangert.
Minutes later, Bangert is wheeled back into the cell in a “safety chair” with a mesh bag – or “spit mask” – over his head. Officials remove the mask, then leave the limp Bangert staring face up from the chair with is face covered in blood.
The video, released to The Sacramento Bee by Sacramento civil rights attorney Mark Merin after a lengthy fight to get that and other videos unsealed, was one of the factors that led Placer County officials to agree to a class-action settlement last year that has led to claims of abuse from nearly 500 former inmates.
Merin said the video depicts an “obviously mentally ill man acting out in an irrational way” who fell victim to deputies who “decided to end it in a very forceful, over-the-top way, inflicting serious injuries to Mr. Bangert.”
“They demonstrated total insensitivity and it was clearly an abusive gang attack on a defenseless individual,” he said. “And it showed absence of training and malevolence on the part of the deputies who participated.”
Placer County Sheriff Devon Bell noted Thursday that his own staff had uncovered evidence of problems in the jail and immediately began investigating.
“Our staff brought this forward,” Bell said. “An when we saw the video we had the same sense that many in the public did. That’s why we contacted the district attorney. It was disturbing to us, too.”
The case broke into the open May 31, 2017, with a news conference by Bell, the newly appointed sheriff, who became emotional as he announced an internal investigation had revealed video evidence of excessive force and cover-up attempts.
Two deputies and a jail official were fired and faced charges of falsifying police reports and other counts, and Bell said jail operations would be revamped to ensure that no other instances of abuse occur.
Despite that, the sheriff said the video evidence would not be released because of concerns by county lawyers, and attorneys insisted in court filings that the videos introduced into federal court filings as evidence in the class-action lawsuit should be destroyed.
In a series of motions filed under seal in recent months, Placer County officials argued that making the videos and other evidence public “would result in particularized harm to the county and its employees.”
“A very real possibility exists,” the county argued, that the videos “could go ‘viral,’ destroying the possibility of a fair jury trial” in other cases.
Merin and Penn Valley attorney Patrick Dwyer fought the attempt to keep the materials under seal, arguing that the videos showed that in the confrontation with Bangert jail officials “prepared false incident reports that materially misrepresented the incident.”
In agreeing to allow the release of the videos, the judge noted that the three criminal cases involving the fired jail workers have been resolved and that there are “no ongoing civil cases whose jury pools might be tainted.”
Newman also wrote that “other courts have found a strong public interest in the disclosure of records related to alleged officer misconduct.”
Bangert received a $250,000 settlement in a separate settlement, and is to receive a $50,000 “incentive fee” for pursuing the class-action lawsuit.
The charges against the three jail officials fired in the scandal ended with varying results.
One sergeant accused of filing false reports had her case dismissed. Two others accused of mistreating inmates pleaded no contest to assault charges, according to federal court records.
Bangert, 28, was being held on minor drug charges and was one of six inmates initially identified as being abused by jailers in Auburn. The sheriff said in announcing an investigation into the case that it was uncovered by sheriff’s officials conducting a routine review of videotapes and use of force reports.
But the disclosure led to a series of civil suits against the department and the county alleging that abuse of inmates was routinely covered up.
The county eventually agreed to a wholesale change in training and video monitoring in the jails, and the court and plaintiffs’ attorneys will monitor the county’s progress over the next 15 months, Merin said.
Merin added that he is “not confident” that the reforms have eradicated all problems inside the jails in Placer County, but that “we are auditing their response to claims of use of force and excessive force, and I think that process will improve the response of the jail personnel to the conduct of inmates.”