Emmett Brock thought he was dying, and his mind raced. This isn’t supposed to happen to me. This doesn’t happen this way. I can’t die like this.
He tasted the blood inside his mouth. He felt the fists land on his head. And he heard the shouts of the sheriff’s deputy on top of him, pressing him into the pavement of the 7-Eleven parking lot.
Three minutes later, the 23-year-old teacher sat in the back of a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department cruiser not even knowing, he said, why the deputy had stopped him.
Brock was sent to the Norwalk station lockup and booked for three felonies. When he told the staff he is a transgender man, he said, they asked to see his genitals before deciding which holding cell to send him to.
That was in February. Brock is now jobless and still facing criminal charges, all stemming from a traffic stop the deputy said was based on an air freshener he’d spotted hanging from Brock’s rearview mirror.
The Sheriff’s Department has been under intense scrutiny in recent weeks for two other use-of-force incidents caught on camera, including one in which a deputy punched a woman in the face while trying to take her child. In that case, Sheriff Robert Luna condemned the incident as “completely unacceptable” and relieved the deputy of duty. The FBI is now investigating.
Read more: Body-cam footage shows Palmdale sheriff’s deputy punching a woman holding her baby
Luna ran on promises of reform and has implemented several changes in the department since taking office in December. He restored the ability of oversight officials to access sheriff’s databases, turned over controversial investigations to outside agencies, ordered his deputies to cooperate with investigations and created an office to “eradicate” deputy gangs.
Citing the possibility of litigation, the department declined to comment specifically on the Feb. 10 incident involving Brock, issuing a statement that said: “We take every use of force seriously, and we do investigate.”
To Brock’s lawyer, Thomas Beck, that underscores how far the Sheriff’s Department has to go when it comes to meaningfully holding deputies accountable.
“They have not changed — in fact, they’ve become more stiffened against criticism,” he said. “The system that they have in place that they tell the public guarantees accountability is a farce.”
Before his run-in with the deputy, Brock already was having a miserable day. He said he’d left his high school teaching job early after a co-worker had harassed him for being transgender. It wasn’t the first time, and he was getting fed up.
A few blocks from the school, Brock spotted a deputy who appeared to be having a heated conversation with a woman on the side of the road. As he drove by, Brock threw up his middle finger. He didn’t even think the deputy would see it, he said.
A few seconds later, he spotted a patrol cruiser following close behind him. It made Brock uneasy. He turned down one side street and then another, trying to figure out whether the cruiser was following him or just going in the same direction. The deputy didn’t turn on his lights or siren, but made every turn Brock did.
Growing unnerved, he called 911.
“Hi, um, I’m being followed by a police car,” he said in a recording shared with The Times. He told the dispatcher that the car was copying his turns, but not pulling him over. He said he wanted to make sure it was a “real police car” and that he wasn’t being stalked.
The two kept talking, and eventually the dispatcher asked: “What is it that you want us to do? If he hasn’t pulled you over, he hasn’t pulled you over.”
Two minutes into the call, Brock cursed and hung up. He kept driving, pulling up outside the 7-Eleven on Mills Avenue in Whittier, planning to buy a Coke before heading to a therapy appointment.
The cruiser pulled in behind him, and the store’s surveillance camera captured what followed. The deputy’s body-worn camera captured the sound.
Read more: L.A. County sheriff creates new office to ‘eradicate all deputy gangs’
As Brock stepped out of his car, Deputy Joseph Benza approached and told him: “I just stopped you,” offering no explanation as to why.
Confused, Brock replied, “No, you didn’t.”
“Yeah, I did,” the deputy said. Then he grabbed Brock’s arm and forced him to the ground.
Still unsure what he’d done, Brock said, he began to scream. “What — what are you doing? Oh, my god. What the f— is happening?”
For the next three minutes, Brock struggled and screamed as the deputy held him down and punched him in the head.
“You’re going to kill me,” Brock told him. “You’re going to f–-ing kill me. Help! Help! Help! I’m not resisting!”
His mind raced, turning over thoughts of all the things he’d never get to do in life: Finish grad school. Be a father. Become a professor.
“Help! Help! Help! I’m not resisting!”
At one point, the deputy ordered him to put his arms behind his back — but Brock’s arms were already pinned under his chest.
“Even when I did get them out the way he wanted, he continued to punch me,” Brock told The Times. “He just kept saying, ‘Stop resisting, stop resisting.’ I didn’t understand why he was shouting that because I wasn’t resisting.”
According to the Sheriff’s Department, two witnesses saw Brock exit his car and struggle with the deputy. One of those witnesses claimed that Brock punched the deputy, which camera footage does not show and the deputy did not allege.
After Brock was in handcuffs, the deputy put him into the back seat of his cruiser. At that point, Brock said, he was trying to make sense of what had happened and why he was on the deputy’s radar in the first place.
It was only later that he learned from paperwork he was given: The deputy said he’d spotted an air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror, supposedly obstructing the view of the road from Brock’s black Honda Civic.
If Benza saw Brock flip him off, he made no mention of it in his report. According to the deputy’s version of events, the force was justified.
“It appeared he was about to walk away from the car and myself,” Benza wrote as part of an 11-page incident report. “His rejection of my traffic detention and his apparent intent to distance himself from his vehicle further raise safety concerns. I know from my training and experience that those who possess contraband items inside vehicles commonly attempt to disassociate themselves from their vehicles when law enforcement is present.”
Though he admitted grabbing Brock’s arm, he said that Brock pulled away and “cocked his right hand back into a fist, indicative of someone about to throw a punch.”
Deciding Brock was “at the onset of assaulting me,” Benza said he tackled him to the ground, adding that Brock had “continuously tried to bite” him. Benza then punched him “approximately eight times in rapid succession.”
“My punches had their intended effect,” he added.
He made no mention of Brock’s cries for help, or that he repeatedly told the deputy that he couldn’t breathe and wasn’t resisting. Instead, Benza’s report noted that Brock “attempted to rip my skin from my hand,” which he said “could result in permanent disfigurement.”
Read more: Sheriff Robert Luna backtracks, says fraud investigation was handed over to FBI
A paramedic’s report from the scene did not mention any bite marks. And when Benza went to the hospital later, the emergency room report noted that he’d told them the bite hadn’t broken the skin and there was no bleeding. A physician’s assistant wrote that there were “no bite marks at this time.”
Medical records do show that Benza fractured his right hand in a “punching injury.”
In interviews with The Times, Brock denied biting the deputy, and his lawyer said it would have been nearly impossible.
“There is no moment that Emmett is not shouting or screaming,” Beck said. “And you can’t talk when your teeth are clamped onto someone’s hand.”
Benza did not respond to a request for comment.
To Ed Obayashi, a former Northern California sheriff’s deputy who is a national use-of-force expert, the incident raises red flags.
“I just don’t see why this escalated as quickly as it did,” he told The Times after reviewing the 7-Eleven footage. “It just goes from zero to 100 immediately, and there’s no explanation.”
And after the violence began, Obayashi said, the apparent lack of attempt to de-escalate the situation — especially once Brock started to show signs of serious distress — was another point of concern.
“There’s always a problem when you have an individual telling an officer he can’t breathe,” Obayashi said, adding that he didn’t see or hear any indication that Brock threatened the deputy.
“This is a minor traffic offense at the most,” he said, “and we’re talking about air freshener.”
Given Brock’s assertion that he flipped off the deputy, Obayashi suggested that the minor traffic infraction might have been a pretext to pull Brock over.
“This could very well be contempt of cop,” he added, referencing a term some in law enforcement use to describe situations in which officers respond with violence when they perceive someone’s behavior as disrespectful.
In California, he added, it can be grounds for deputies and police officers to lose their state peace officer certification. In Los Angeles, such behavior could also violate the department policy banning retaliatory force.
Deputies took Brock to Coast Plaza Hospital, where he was treated for scrapes, bruises and a concussion. Once he was medically cleared, deputies took him to the station for booking. There, staff took his mug shot and fingerprints. They took his shoes and directed him to take off any jewelry. He struggled to pull his rings off over his swollen knuckles.
By that point, he said, the pain was beginning to set in. “My head was just exploding. I felt like I got hit by a truck.”
It wasn’t long before authorities asked Brock for a statement, during which he explained that he is transgender.
“So you’re a girl?” he said one jailer asked.
Brock said he wasn’t.
Then the man asked whether he had a penis — and Brock said he did. He explained what surgeries existed, and said that he’d been on hormones for years.
After one jailer asked for proof, Brock said, he spent a few awkward minutes in a bathroom showing her his genitalia and explaining the effects of testosterone.
He was placed in a women’s holding cell. It was a Friday afternoon and, with the courts closed, he worried he’d be stuck behind bars all weekend.
It was after dark when one of the jailers told him his family and his girlfriend had pulled together enough money for bail.
He was facing three felonies — mayhem, resisting arrest and obstruction — plus misdemeanor failure to obey a police officer.
Four days later, he lost his job after state authorities notified the school of his pending charges.
“I lost so much of myself that day in the parking lot,” he said. “But I love what I do, and it is kind of how I define myself — and for that to be taken away? It felt like I had just lost everything.”
When the incident went through the department’s normal force review process, officials cleared Benza of wrongdoing. One sergeant wrote that Brock was assaultive “with threat of serious bodily injury.” Another sergeant, listed as the watch commander, concurred, saying the incident was within policy and the force used was “objectively reasonable.”
The sergeant also checked “no” on the paperwork next to the question: “Could officer safety, tactical communication, or de-escalation techniques have been improved?”
The station captain agreed with the two sergeants below him. Only once the matter went up to the division commander did the report note room for improvement.
“This situation was very dynamic and evolving, which required a split-second decision to be made by Deputy Benza, since it appeared suspect Brock was trying to avoid being contacted. Officer safety is paramount,” Cmdr. Allen Castellano wrote.
But since Benza’s vehicle had Brock’s blocked in, Castellano said, he could have taken the time to call for backup while keeping tabs on the situation before confronting Brock. Overall, he wrote, “based on Deputy Benza’s articulation that suspect Brock was biting his right hand,” the punches “appeared to be justified.”
In March, Brock’s lawyer asked department officials to criminally investigate Benza. In April — after sending a second letter — he received a reply assuring him the department would investigate “in a timely manner.”
That month, Brock had his first court appearance. Though he’d been booked on three felonies and a misdemeanor, prosecutors ultimately decided to move forward with two misdemeanor charges: resisting arrest and battery on an officer. A judge reduced his bail from $100,000 to nothing.
The case is still moving forward.
In a May email to the department, Brock’s attorney accused the deputy of false imprisonment and kidnapping.
“There is now proof Benza manufactured the biting claim upon learning that the 7-Eleven video caught him violently assaulting and punching Mr. Brock,” Beck wrote.
“I would love to see the department turn a new leaf with this evidence,” he wrote. “My chief criticism of LASD over the decades has been the willful blind eyes that apply to citizen complaints, no matter what the proof. Let this case not be one of them.”
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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.