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Abuses at Orange County and San Bernardino Jails Cost Taxpayers Millions

by Dale Chappell

“Chicken-winging,” it’s called – when guards twist a prisoner’s arms behind his back and wrench them upward, inflicting extreme pain. Without the upward yank, the technique is an acceptable means of physical control and “you’ll get compliance a lot quicker,” according to former U.S. Treasury agent George Wright, now a professor of criminal justice at Santa Ana College. “But if you go high enough,” he added, “their shoulders will go out of their sockets.”

As a result, the torturous maneuver – also known as “pretzeling” – is a violation of protocol in all southern California sheriff’s departments.

Because the difference between proper and improper control holds is so slight, statistics are hard to come by. Chicken-winging and other physical abuse by staff members is common enough in the Orange and San Bernardino county jail systems, though, to cost taxpayers in those jurisdictions millions of dollars in lawsuit payouts.

In Orange County alone, six claims have been filed related to improper control holds since June 2014 – including one that resulted in a $227,000 settlement paid to Charles Huntsman in July 2017. See: Huntsman v. County of Orange, U.S.D.C. (C.D. Cal.), Case No. 8:16-cv-01561-JVS-AS.

Within three minutes after Huntsman, 33, was brought into the county’s Santa Ana jail in May 2016 on suspicion of drunk driving, his arm was broken. The chicken-wing maneuver was used against him by Wesley Dean, a deputy with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) who worked at the jail. Dean later admitted that he heard a “pop” and a scream of pain, and knew he had broken Huntsman’s arm just above the elbow. He never filed a use-of-force report, though.

In a deposition in Huntsman’s lawsuit against the county, Dean apologized. “It wasn’t an academy-approved technique,” he admitted. “It’s not a situation I’m proud of.”

Alison Boroch, 41, filed a lawsuit claiming the same thing happened to her a year earlier at the jail. After the graphics designer was brought in on suspicion of drunk driving, she said that OCSD deputies Olivia Coco and Terra Carrillo yanked her arms behind her back in a chicken-wing move. Jail video footage showed Boroch screaming in pain.

In a sworn deposition, Coco said she felt justified in using the maneuver because Boroch had a “smart-ass attitude,” and a failure to check it would encourage other detainees to act in a similar “aggressive or disrespectful” manner.

“I didn’t think [Boroch’s experience] was traumatic at all,” Coco added.

She and Carrillo were also accused of using excessive force against detainee Elena Grant while booking her on drunk driving charges in 2014. Surveillance video showed the deputies placing the 49-year-old in a control hold, her face a mask of pain.

The lawsuit brought by Boroch remains pending, as does another suit filed by Grant.

A nurse who resigned from Orange County’s jail system in December 2016 said that after she watched guards break a prisoner’s arm using a chicken-wing hold, her supervisors tried to enlist her in a cover-up. Jennifer Westfield, 31, also claimed they asked nurses to find a way to say the man had osteoporosis. She said if she or other jail healthcare providers confronted OCSD deputies about the danger of the control hold maneuver, they were rebuffed and ostracized.

“They go off on us,” said Westfield, who filed a federal workplace discrimination claim against the sheriff’s office. “You will get totally disrespected by the deputies after that. Those nurses are then labeled.... It’s known that if you speak against the deputies, that you will be labeled as a snitch, and you carry that reputation.”

However, as an example of how difficult it is to distinguish a proper control hold from chicken-winging, two other former jail nurses said they observed nothing improper.

The OCSD’s problems with the maneuver date back at least to 2009. That’s when the county paid $20,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by Jeff Pittman, a Newport Beach real estate broker. Thomas Beck, Pitt­man’s attorney, said that while booking his client on suspicion of DUI, deputies at the jail jerked his arms backward and over his head, causing “intense pain.”

Despite settling multiple lawsuits, Orange County officials have denied allegations of abuse.

“Deputies must have an understanding of, and true appreciation for, the limitations of their authority,” said Assistant Sheriff Bob Peterson. “This is especially true with respect to deputies overcoming resistance while engaged in the performance of their duties.”

Lt. Sarkis Ohannessian with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department (SBCSD) said deputies at the county jail do not employ chicken-wing holds improperly, either.

“We do not train in elevating the hand [behind the back] so much as to inflict injury or ‘torture,’” he remarked.

But prisoner William Hernandez, 53, disagreed.

“[SBCSD deputies] grab guys and practically tear their arms off behind their backs. They chicken wing them,” said Hernandez, who was held at the San Bernardino County jail.

“These statements are one-sided,” Ohannessian insisted. “Our deputies are not trained in ‘chicken winging’ to injure, nor is it an approved technique by our agency.”

And yet chicken-winging and other abuses at the county’s West Valley Detention Center have cost taxpayers almost $4 million in lawsuits. In June 2017, the county settled two federal complaints – one for $175,000 filed by Eric Smith and another for $70,000 filed by Armando Marquez – and five more in July 2017, totaling $2.75 million paid to 40 prisoners who suffered injuries from excessive force and the improper, sadistic use of Tasers.

“We’re getting calls that it’s worse than ever before,” said Victorville attorney James Terrell, one of several lawyers involved in the cases. “It’s a form of torture.”

The litigation followed a criminal investigation by the FBI, which prompted a federal grand jury to review whether charges will be filed, according to FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller.

The federal investigation, as well as the allegations of abuse and lawsuits, prompted the termination of seven jail deputies: Nicholas Oakley, Robert Escamilla, Andrew Cruz, Russell Kopasz, Brock Teyechea, Robert Morris and Eric Smale.

“You know what force it takes to break somebody’s arm?” said Jonathan Smith, a former civil rights attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). “It’s a huge amount of force.”

The DOJ is currently investigating OCSD over allegations of mishandling informants and withholding evidence in cases involving defendants who were arrested and booked into the county’s jail system, which includes five facilities. Further, three prisoners escaped in January 2016 and a detainee was murdered in July 2017.

“I know the Orange County jail has been under scrutiny,” Smith said. “There is some view that it improved, but it seems they’ve returned to their own bad [practices].”

Following a two-year review, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California (ACLU-SC) reported in June 2017 that at least ten of 120 OCSD prisoners it interviewed said they had been chicken-winged by guards.

Esther Linn, a jail coordinator for the ACLU-SC, said the organization had received many complaints of chicken-winging. According to the prisoners who were interviewed, “the technique is used when no force is needed and in circumstances where far less severe force was appropriate and sufficient.”

As a result of its findings, the ACLU-SC called for the immediate resignation of Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens. The 63-year-old sheriff announced her retirement the same day, though she said her decision was unrelated to the report and rejected its findings. She will serve out the remainder of her term in 2018.

Meanwhile, after breaking Charles Huntsman’s arm, OCSD Deputy Wesley Dean was suspended for three days – and then promoted to patrol duty. He faced no criminal charges. 

Sources: Southern California News Group, Orange County Register,


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Related legal case

Huntsman v. County of Orange