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Dec. 3, 2023

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Prosecutors agree to drop charges against trans man beaten by sheriff’s deputy


Prosecutors on Thursday agreed to dismiss their case against a transgender man who was beaten by a sheriff’s deputy outside a Los Angeles-area 7-Eleven, then criminally charged for resisting arrest.

Store surveillance footage obtained by The Times showed Deputy Joseph Benza repeatedly punching Emmett Brock as the Whittier man begged for his life. The arrest stemmed from a traffic stop the deputy said was based on an air freshener he’d spotted hanging from Brock’s rearview mirror and obstructing the view of the road.

Afterward, the department cleared Benza of wrongdoing but Brock lost his teaching job due to the pending charges against him. On Thursday, he said that news of the dismissal came as a relief and that his lawyer still plans to ask a court to declare him factually innocent.

“I am feeling relieved that the district attorney made the right choice and chose justice,” Brock said. “But I will feel more relieved when I get my job back.”

A spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office said only that the case was tossed “due to insufficient evidence.”

The decision to drop the charges comes days after Brock’s lawyer formally filed paperwork accusing the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department of a cover-up, saying that several deputies made false accusations to put his client behind bars with “excessive” bail.

In the notice of claim — a filing that is typically the precursor to a lawsuit — attorney Thomas Beck also accused jailers at the Norwalk sheriff’s station of harassing his client by allegedly forcing the then-23-year-old teacher to expose his genitals in order to prove his gender.

The Sheriff’s Department said this week that, even though a use-of-force review cleared the deputy involved, other aspects of Brock’s allegations are still under investigation.

“The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department takes all use of force incidents seriously,” the department wrote in a statement. “Unfortunately, we cannot comment any further at this time due to the pending litigation in this matter.”

Attorney Tom Yu, who is representing the deputy involved, said his client conducted a lawful stop and then behaved just as he was trained.

“Joe didn’t do anything wrong,” Yu said. “If you don’t want police officers to do takedowns, then don’t train them that way.”

On the morning of Feb. 10, Brock had left his high school teaching job early and was driving to a therapy appointment when he 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 said, he casually threw up his middle finger, thinking the deputy would not see it.

A few seconds later, he said, he spotted a patrol cruiser following close behind him. The vehicle did not have on lights or sirens but mirrored each turn he made. Unnerved and fearing he was being followed by someone impersonating a police officer, he called 911.

The dispatcher told him he didn’t need to pull over, but Brock eventually parked in a 7-Eleven parking lot on Mills Avenue in Whittier. As Brock stepped out of his car, the deputy approached and told him: “I just stopped you,” offering no explanation as to why.

“No, you didn’t,” Brock said, according to an audio recording captured by the deputy’s body camera.

“Yeah, I did,” the deputy said, before immediately grabbing Brock’s arm and forcing him to the ground.

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,” he shouted. “You’re going to f–-ing kill me. Help! Help! Help! I’m not resisting!”

After Brock was in handcuffs, the deputy put him into the back seat of his cruiser. Brock was bloodied and his glasses were broken, but, he said, he still didn’t know why the deputy had stopped him in the first place.

In the version of events laid out in the 11-page incident report Benza filed in February, he did not mention seeing Brock flip him off. And in an interview with The Times this week, Benza’s attorney said that the person Brock passed on the side of the road wasn’t his client, but another law enforcement officer probably from another agency.

“It was not a retaliation for being flipped off,” Yu said. “It was a pretext stop, and police do that all the time — if you don’t like it, tell the legislature to change the law.”

According to Brock’s lawyer, though, the timing of events and the activity log for the patrol cruiser undermine Yu’s claim that it was a different officer.

Yu also said the force his client used was justified because it initially appeared that Brock was beginning to walk away from the deputy.

“If you allow the suspect to walk away, shame on you because you can get killed,” he said.

In the incident report, Benza admitted to grabbing Brock’s arm and then punching him repeatedly but said it appeared the man was “about to throw a punch.” During the struggle, the deputy said, Brock “attempted to rip my skin from my hand” by repeatedly biting him.

But a paramedic’s report from the scene did not mention any bite marks. And when Benza went to a hospital later, a physician assistant wrote that there were “no bite marks at this time.”

In interviews with The Times, Brock denied biting the deputy.

After he was taken to the Norwalk station for booking — on three felonies and one misdemeanor — Brock was asked to give a statement, during which he explained he is transgender.

“So you’re a girl?” he said one jailer asked him.

When Brock said he wasn’t, the man asked whether he had a penis — and Brock said he did, explaining the effects of the hormones that he’d been on for years. After one jailer asked for proof, Brock said, he spent a few awkward minutes in a bathroom showing her his genitalia before he was ultimately placed in a women’s holding cell.

Though his family bailed him out that evening, Brock said he lost his job four days later after state authorities notified the school of his pending charges.

Now, he said, he hopes to get his job back. In the coming weeks, Brock said, he and his lawyer also plan to file a formal lawsuit against the county based on the notice of claim. Aside from recounting details of the incident in Whittier, the notice says that others in the department allegedly warned Benza the entire incident had been caught on camera and helped him come up with a “knowingly false justification” for arresting Brock by claiming he’d “allegedly bit Benza’s right hand.”

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The use-of-force investigation that followed — which cleared Benza of any wrongdoing — was allegedly “falsified and distorted” to further justify the criminal charges against Brock, the notice of claim says. The requested damages will be more than $10,000, according to the document.

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 woman has since filed suit and the FBI is now investigating.

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