The two Santa Barbara County Jail guards accused of assaulting an inmate last summer have been terminated by the Sheriff’s Office following an internal affairs investigation, but their court case remains stalled at its preliminary stages while the FBI looks into the incident. Robert Kirsch, hired as a custody deputy in 2006, was fired on March 7. Christopher Johnson, with the Sheriff’s Office since 2005, was terminated on March 19.
Sheriff’s spokesperson Kelly Hoover said because the decisions were personnel matters, she couldn’t comment any further. However, friends, family, and colleagues of the former deputies have been vocal in their criticism of the firings, alleging that the move was not only political but also retaliation after Kirsch filed a formal grievance about unsafe conditions for guards at the jail and prompted a January report that concluded staffing levels at the time were dangerously low.
On June 17 in the jail’s reception center, Johnson was moving Owens from his holding cell when Owens — a 26-year-old Lompoc gang member arrested for rape and murder — began to resist. Johnson attempted to subdue him by taking him to the ground, but struggled and called for backup. (The incident was record by a surveillance camera, and multiple sources who have viewed the footage shared the sequence of events with The Independent with promises to make the tape available next week.)
Kirsch arrived to help Johnson and delivered three knee strikes to Owens’ legs, after which he agreed to cooperate. Because of the camera angle, much of Johnson’s actions were not recorded. The whole confrontation lasted approximately 15 seconds, the sources said. Two CHP officers were witnesses to it and have reportedly testified that they didn’t feel the deputies were guilty of any wrongdoing.
Kirsch and Johnson have maintained their innocence and say the scuffle with Owens was a routine handling of an unruly inmate. While the knee strikes were reportedly cited as excessive force in the Sheriff’s investigation, law enforcement officials familiar with the case say the tactic is allowed when the situation calls for it.
According to the Sheriff’s Policy Manual, “It is the policy of this department that deputies shall use only that amount of force that reasonably appears necessary, given the facts and circumstances perceived by the deputy at the time of the event, to effectively bring an incident under control.” Prosecutor Anthony Davis has stated that the use of force becomes illegal when it exceeds reasonableness for a given situation. An FBI spokesperson confirmed her office is involved in the criminal investigation, but declined to answer questions about when and why the agency was called in.
The day after the incident, Lawanda Lyons-Pruitt, chief investigator of Santa Maria’s public defender office and president of the NAACP’s Santa Maria-Lompoc branch, brought an assault complaint to the District Attorney’s Office. A week later Owens began complaining of pain in his upper torso and was taken to the hospital for a medical examination. After a short stay, he was returned to jail. The Sheriff’s Office has declined to elaborate on Owens’s reported injuries, citing health privacy laws.
Both Kirsch, 30, and Johnson, 28 — who were on paid administrative leave until their terminations — pleaded not guilty to their charges of assault by a public officer, which carries a maximum sentence of three years in County Jail. Their arraignment took place August 30, but their preliminary hearing has been postponed multiple times since.
Owens was convicted in November of fatally shooting a man in 2007 as well as raping and abusing his girlfriend over the course of their eight-month relationship. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole, but was still awaiting trial at the time of the alleged assault.
Sources say Kirsch and Johnson plan on participating in a county civil service hearing in hopes of clearing their names and being reinstated, but they can’t do so until their criminal case is resolved. Their next court date is scheduled for May 16. Because it is an open case, Davis said he couldn’t talk in detail about it.
Kirsch’s attorney, William Hadden, who defended Los Angeles police officers implicated in the Rodney King beating, declined to comment for this story, but told reporters after August’s arraignment, “It’s our contention that both deputies did nothing wrong.” Johnson’s attorney didn’t return a request for comment.
Kirsch has reportedly been in talks with private attorney Josh Lynn about a wrongful termination lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Office, but that has not been confirmed. Lynn didn’t immediately return calls placed Thursday afternoon.