Sheriff’s supervisor refused deputy’s request to restrain woman who later blinded herself
The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department failed to disclose an internal affairs investigation that reveals new information about the events leading to a young woman blinding herself in a cell at the Los Colinas jail in Santee.
The investigation came to light as part of a lawsuit filed by Tanya Suarez, who was high on methamphetamine and hallucinating when she was booked into the jail for being under the influence of an illicit drug on May 6, 2019. Suarez, then 23, was in the throes of a drug-fueled paranoia and was convinced that if she didn’t blind herself, jailers would torture her and her family.
A deputy who was involved in processing Suarez, and recommended restraining her so she could not harm herself — an action that potentially could have saved Suarez’s eyesight — later complained that her report had been altered to remove the fact that her supervisor rejected that recommendation.
According to official reports, Suarez began to claw at her eyes while waiting to be fingerprinted. Deputies scrambled to pin her to the ground and handcuff her. Amid the struggle, Suarez bit a deputy.
Another deputy involved in the incident described what happened next.
“I suggested to supervisors on scene the option of utilizing the (restraint) chair to prevent Suarez from further harming herself or possibly having to use force to stop her in the future,” Deputy Natalie Crist wrote. “It was explained to me that due to Suarez being calm and not actively trying to harm herself that the (restraint) chair would not be utilized at that time.”
Crist’s report does not name the supervisors. But after one of them, Watch Commander Charlise Wilson, read it, she ordered a jail sergeant to remove the part about her rejecting Crist’s suggestion to use a restraint chair.
During a debriefing on May 8, 2019, Crist realized her report had been altered; she told a captain, triggering an internal affairs investigation.
Suarez filed a lawsuit against the county in March 2020, arguing that jail staff had failed to protect her from harming herself. During the discovery process, her attorney, Danielle Pena, asked the county to turn over all materials relating to what happened to Suarez. Pena received Crist’s report, which had been returned to its original form, but nothing that identified the supervisors Crist referred to or mentioned the internal affairs investigation.
It wasn’t until this past March that a deputy briefly mentioned the internal affairs investigation during a deposition for Suarez’s lawsuit.
It took two months for the county to turn over the internal affairs report, which contained information Pena had not previously known, including that the jail’s top supervisor, Wilson, had watched Suarez struggle in the fingerprinting area, and saw the damage she had done to one eye.
Pena said Wilson could have ordered that Suarez remain handcuffed or be monitored one-on-one until she sobered up.
The video also shows that Suarez wasn’t calm on the gurney, Pena said.
When asked by an internal affairs investigator why she ordered changes to Crist’s report, Wilson initially said she “did not want to get into further trouble because she was on probation at the time.” Later she changed her story, telling investigators she assumed that Crist’s report was about Suarez biting a deputy, so the information about the restraint chair was not relevant.
The sergeant who amended Crist’s report was found by investigators to have been dishonest. Such a finding would normally require the department to make the investigation public under SB 1421, a 2018 law that requires California law enforcement agencies to make certain internal affairs reports public. When the Union-Tribune could not locate the report online, a sheriff’s department spokeswoman said that the dishonesty finding had been downgraded to a lesser charge, something that was not reflected in the internal affairs report itself. She also declined to comment on the lawsuit.
After deputies had secured Suarez to a gurney, they cut off her clothes and then used the scissors to cut off Suarez’s long acrylic nails, leaving jagged edges. She was placed in a safety cell — an empty room with a hole in the floor for a toilet.
According to court documents, surveillance video shows that, once in the cell, Suarez “can be seen making violent gestures with her fingers near her eyes.”
Twenty minutes later, Suarez began removing her right eye. Video shows a deputy, Jessica Castner, stopping at the cell window and watching for 10 seconds. Castner confirmed in an incident report that she saw Suarez’s right eyeball fall to the floor.
The video shows Wilson standing two feet from the cell door.
“Defendant Castner turned to defendant Wilson and informed her that Tanya’s right eyeball just fell out,” Pena wrote in the recent court filing. “Defendant Wilson instructed Defendant Castner to ‘get the (restraint) chair.’”
Neither woman took any action, Pena said, like entering the cell or knocking on the window to get Suarez’s attention.
“Surveillance footage shows Wilson never so much as approached the safety cell door despite knowing Tanya was going for her second eyeball,” Pena wrote. “Footage shows Defendant Wilson failed to order other deputies to intervene and failed to intervene herself. Instead, footage depicts Wilson walking to the back of the hallway as Tanya was removing her second eyeball.”
In a motion filed with the court earlier this month, Pena asked federal Judge William Q. Hayes for permission to amend the lawsuit complaint to add Wilson as a defendant and add a claim for supervisory liability — a higher level of liability, Pena said, “because the more you know, the more responsibility you have to intervene.”
The internal affairs investigation is new evidence, Pena writes, that “answers the fundamental question: Who refused to place Ms. Suarez in the (restraint) chair?”
Pena describes Wilson’s actions as amounting to “deliberate indifference,” a legal standard that carries more weight than a negligence claim and means an official chose to disregard the serious consequences of their actions.
“Watch Commander Wilson’s refusal to restrain Ms. Suarez inside the safety cell, while knowing she had just attempted to gouge out her eyes and was screaming while restrained on the gurney, was unreasonable and deliberately indifferent to Ms. Suarez’s medical needs,” Pena wrote.
Attorneys for the defendants will have a chance to respond to Pena’s motion; Hayes will issue a ruling in mid-August.