As we closed out 2019, we spent some time examining exactly which stories, series, and topics rose to the top of WitnessLA’s most-read list for last year.
Here’s a quick look at what we found:
Facing the Inferno
Among the stories that drew the most attention from readers were the three narratives that made up the multi-part investigative series, Facing the Inferno.
This, if you remember, was the cluster of stories that drilled down into the question of how and why LA County Probation dropped the ball so dangerously when it came to issuing the needed evacuation order and more in early November 2018, as the Woolsey Fire, the county’s worst wildfire in a century, barreled through the Malibu hills toward the youth facility known as Campus Kilpatrick, leaving 22 teenage boys and 13 courageous staff members stuck in the path of the fast-moving and terrifying conflagration.
Yet, while parts 1 and 2 of the series drew a great many readers, interestingly, it was the third part of the series that drew the most.
In Part 3, we looked at whether probation higher-ups had created the needed emergency protocols and general preparations for their various wildland adjacent youth facilities. We did so by examining what happened when, a year after the Woolsey blaze, the Santa Ana wind-whipped Sylmar fire ignited .8 miles from Barry J Nidorf Juvenile Hall forcing the evacuation of nearly 278 youth. In many ways, the evacuation went smoothly, with detention officers acting quickly and skillfully under pressure. But in a few critical ways, through no fault of the on-the-ground staff, we learned that some things had gone disturbingly wrong.
#MeToo Behind Bars
Our ongoing series pertaining to sexual misconduct in lock-ups for girls and women continued to be viewed as important by readers. In particular, they gravitated to Lauren Lee White’s five-plus-month investigation looking at sexual misconduct inside LA’s women’s jail, Century Regional Detention Facility (CRDF).
White’s excellent story gained still more readers when it was reprinted by the Guardian.
This year, the other #MeToo Behind Bars article that particularly drew readers’ attention described the plea deal that the LA DA’s Office struck with former LASD deputy Giancarlo Scotti, which characterized his traumatizing sexual assaults of at least six women inside CRDF as “non-coerced,” in other words, “consensual.” In the story, we reported the reactions of the women who were victimized by Scotti as they described their feelings of betrayal by the DA’s office, and the judge who handed down the resulting light sentence, in harrowing detail.
Gangsters with badges
In 2018, as readers may remember, WitnessLA broke the story about a deputy clique known as the Banditos, the members of which put other Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies in the hospital in the course of a brawl that occurred during an off-duty party in September 2018. Since then, we note that readers look for our stories examining the issue of gangsters with badges, a problem that has gone unsolved in the LASD, uniquely, for the last 50 years.
In 2019, among our most-read articles on the topic was our September 25, 2019, story, which deconstructed a new 64-page civil complaint describing a” reign of terror” by members of the now-notorious Banditos, who are based at the department’s East Los Angeles Station.
The story also looked closely at the findings of Sean Kennedy, the Executive Director of the Center for Juvenile Law & Policy at Loyola Law School, who is a member of the Civilian Oversight Commission for the LA County Sheriff’s Department (COC). Kennedy and his team spent many months drilling down into the world of “secret deputy subgroups,” and the resulting reports drew WitnessLA’s attention along with that of our readers.
In 2019, seeing tgat no other news outlet in the state was regularly probing California’s still painfully troubled Department of Juvenile Justice, WitnessLA launched “DJJ Watch,” which has consistently drawn readers to this important issue. This has been especially true for the stories we’ve published by DJJ insider and WLA contributor, Alberto “Beto” Gutierrez, Ph.D., such as this look at the secrets of data collection inside the state’s youth prisons.
The often bumpy roads to reform
Predictably, WitnessLA readers gravitate toward stories that delve into new forms of justice system reform —and/or investigations that illustrate the pressing need for such reforms.
Thus, WitnessLA’s year-plus-long coverage leading up to the LA County Supervisors vote to trigger the creation of a civilian oversight body with bite for the nation’s largest probation department has been, not surprisingly, important to readers.
And, in another arena, in February of last year, as county residents were trying to get a better idea of what they could expect from their then brand new LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, we saw an avalanche of reader interest for such stories as our lengthy report and analysis of the sheriff’s chart-heavy and unsettling presentation claiming, among other things, that the county’s jails were far, far more dangerous when he came into office than they were five years before, prior to his predecessor Jim McDonnell arriving on the scene.
Similarly, readers were drawn to stories such as the one we wrote about the reasons behind a sobering message that Inspector General Max Huntsman’s delivered to the board of supervisors during the public discussion about why it was essential to expand the authority of the Office of the Inspector General to include subpoena power.
More recently, WLA’s Taylor Walker’s look into reports of harassment targeting families whose loved ones had been killed by LA County Sheriff’s deputies attracted strong readership.
It was also not surprising to find a great deal of reader attention drawn to our analysis of the mid-August, vote by the LA County Board of Supervisors to cancel the county’s $1.7 billion contract to replace the dangerous and dungeon-like Men’s Central Jail. (This story, of course, is far from over.)
Among still other well-read stories were our newest updates to our multi-year Follow the Money series chronicling the struggle by justice advocates to disrupt LA County Probation’s long-time and oversight-free use of tens of millions of dollars yearly in state juvenile justice funds. Our 2019 updates chronicled how most of that money was finally—and historically—directed to community-based programs, rather than being hoarded by probation.
And, as you might have guessed, there has been a lot of reader interest in the story WitnessLA broke on Monday about the board of supervisors’ intriguing and unexpected appointment of former LASD undersheriff, Ray Leyva, to the position of interim Chief of LA County Probation.
The Mandoyan matter
Finally, of course, any time WitnessLA has delved into the neverending case of the firing, rehiring, and refiring of former Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputy, Caren “Carl” Mandoyan, readers tuned in too.
We believe this is due to the fact that, wherever one stands on the Mandoyan issue, it points beyond itself to issues and principles that are of importance to all LA County residents—which is why we have continued to report on the subject.
(In fact, we have a related story coming up very soon.)
So, onward to 2020!