San Luis Obispo County authorities are investigating reports that children were beaten by police officers last month during a youth boot camp that was renting facilities at Camp San Luis Obispo.
The alleged abuse did not involve any local residents or Camp San Luis personnel; the county Sheriff’s Office is investigating the matter because it falls under its jurisdiction.
Though officials are releasing few details, attorneys for the alleged victims said their clients were slapped, punched and stepped on by drill instructors as part of a 20-week program sponsored by the Huntington Park and South Gate police departments, as well as the California National Guard.
The alleged abuse occurred between May 17 and 24.
The Leadership Empowerment and Discipline program provides confidence and fitness-building training to at-risk youths ages 11 to 17, according to the Huntington Park Police Department website.
The county Sheriff’s Office announced late Tuesday that it was contacted by the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services about alleged physical and verbal abuse of a child at the camp.
The Sheriff’s Office said the alleged abuse occurred during the one-week session at the California National Guard base in San Luis Obispo and that it involved alleged physical abuse by drill instructors who are members of the Huntington Park and South Gate police departments.
The Sheriff’s Office said it sent three investigators to Southern California, where the alleged victims live, and interviewed 39 camp attendees, identifying six additional victims.
California National Guard Maj. Mark Johnson declined to comment on the investigation or the arrangement Camp San Luis made in renting the facility to the boot camp. He referred all questions to the Sheriff’s Office.
The alleged victims have retained attorneys who on Wednesday said drill instructors subjected kids to physical and verbal abuse.
Greg Owen, one attorney representing the children, said officers stepped on kids’ hands and backs while they were ordered to do push-ups. He said some of the victims who didn’t meet camp expectations were ordered into a dark room, held up by several instructors and beaten in the face, head and stomach.
“Then they’d drop them, kick them in the side, throw them a towel and tell them, ‘Wipe yourself off before you go out there,’ ” Owen said.
Owen added that one child’s fingers were fractured after an officer stood on his hand, and another was forced to take the four-hour bus ride to the camp handcuffed to a bar and lying on the floor of the bus as a punishment.
The law firm said in a news release that most attendees identified two brothers as the source of abuse, and those brothers have been suspended from LEAD but remain on patrol duty in the police department they work for, which was not specified.
“Here you have these officers who think they are truly above the law,” Owen said. “If they think they can beat up little kids, how would you like to be an adult and stopped by one?”
According to Owen, when county Sheriff’s deputies interviewed the attendees at a park in Huntington Park, the two police officer brothers were also in the park and intimidated the children from telling their entire accounts.
Sheriff’s Office spokesman Tony Cipolla confirmed that an initial screening was held at a community center at the park but disputed the attorney’s claim.
“None of the alleged victims or witnesses ever mentioned that the officers alleged to be involved in this incident were there,” Cipolla said.
He said follow-up interviews were conducted in another city.
Camp San Luis Cmdr. Joe Righello wrote in an emailed statement late Wednesday that the camp has provided training space to the Huntington Park Police Department since May 2007 but that National Guard personnel only participated by facilitating a high rope course, checking and maintaining equipment, conducting safety briefings and monitoring the use of courses.
He would not answer questions about the National Guard’s role when a program attendee is injured while at the facility.
“It would be premature to address questions about liability at this point in the investigation,” Righello wrote.
Owen said he has no reason to believe National Guard personnel were involved or negligent in the abuse.
That investigation remained ongoing Wednesday evening with the help of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office.