A former inmate with mental health issues filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for a beating he allegedly suffered in February 2009 at the hands of jail deputies. Two of the deputies were recently indicted by the U.S. Justice Department for the alleged assault.
Bret Phillips, 43, says four deputies at Men’s Central Jail punched him in the face and body while he was handcuffed and chained. The lawsuit claims deputies also used pepper spray and a flashlight during the beating, which left Phillips unconscious.
Nicole Nishida, a spokesperson for the Sheriff's Department, said the agency has not yet reviewed the lawsuit and was unable to comment on the case.
"However, we take all allegations of inmate abuse very seriously and investigate every allegation appropriately." Nishida said.
Phillips suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and is bipolar, according to the lawsuit. Gloria Allred, his lawyer, said the Sheriff’s department should have known Phillips had serious mental health issues because he had been placed in a psychiatric section of the jail during a prior incarceration. He was in the jail's general population when the beating occurred.
“Because he suffered from mental impairment, he was completely vulnerable to any deputy who wished to abuse him and escape punishment,” Allred said.
A priest visiting the jail that day witnessed the beating and later reported it to a sergeant. But in wasn’t until February of this year that federal authorities with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles indicted two deputies.
KPCC broke the news to Bret Phillips this past February that charges had been filed against the deputies.
"I was pretty beat up," he said.
Phillips was jailed for failing to provide his new address to his probation officer, said his long-time companion and caregiver Christine Chopurian. She said they had just moved 30 hours before he was arrested for the probation violation.
“I truly believe that if Father Paulino Juarez wasn’t there visiting the jail that day, Bret might have died,” she said.
Chopurian said Phillips loses sleep over the beating and still has nightmares. His doctors have increased his medication since then, she said, but he still has trouble associating with people.
Allred said that if Phillips had been placed in a mental health facility with trained personnel, this wouldn’t have happened to him.
“This county has been aware for quite a long time about the vulnerability and the needs and perhaps even the abuse at L.A. County jails of mentally impaired inmates,” she said.
The suit asks for unspecified compensation and names former L.A. Sheriff Lee Baca and at least four deputies as defendants.
On Tuesday, L.A. County Supervisors voted to move forward with plans to build a new jail focused on mental health treatment. L.A. County District Attorney Jackie Lacey is also convening a task force at the end of this month to discuss how to change the way the criminal justice system in Los Angeles treats people with mental health issues.
Allred said she was pleased at the calls for change.
"It's time," she said. “And if they don’t, then they are going to find themselves looking down the barrel of more lawsuits.”